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Mending, Not Ending, the Death Penalty, Part II

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Kent notes a WSJ article about efforts in some states to reform and expedite the death penalty.  The article is worth the read, and attempts to be neutral, but in some places is considerably misleading.  It says, for example:

The efforts to carry out more executions run counter to a growing tide of disenchantment with the death penalty in parts of the country, often because of a widespread belief the death penalty as practiced is costly and inefficient.

Maryland Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley made cost a centerpiece of his successful campaign to get rid of the death penalty earlier this year. The state became the sixth to abolish capital punishment since 2007.

Public support nationwide for capital punishment, at 63%, is near its lowest level in 39 years, according to the most recent Gallup poll on the topic, released in January.

This account of things is a good deal less than entirely accurate.

First, there is no "growing tide of disenchantment" with the death penalty.  The Gallup poll to which the article refers stands for the opposite conclusion.  Indeed it starts with the heading,  "U.S. Death Penalty Support Stable at 63%."  The article accompanying the poll notes (emphasis added):

Americans' support for the death penalty has varied widely over the 77 years Gallup has measured it, and now stands at 63%, which is about average for the full trend. Gallup's initial reading in 1936 found 59% in favor, but support then dipped well below 50% at points during the 1960s, only to surge above 70% in the 1980s. Support remained high through the first part of this century, but has since waned...

Yes, it has waned over the last 20 years, but what goes unmentioned is that the murder rate has been cut about in half over that time.  With less of a problem, people, especially those not paying close attention, can be forgiven for thinking that we can do with less of a solution. 

Second, there are no particular "parts of the country" where the death penalty has suddenly become unpopular.  It was always less popular in the Northeast than in other areas, and the successful repeal efforts have all taken place only in "blue states" with especially heavy Democratic legislative majorities after major Republican losses in the consecutive 2006 and 2008 elections.

Third, "repeal" was largely an illusion anyway, since the death penalty had already de facto disappeared in the repeal states.  As I noted in my long post about this here:

Yes, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Connecticut and...Maryland have become abolitionist (not a single one of them by a vote of the people, however).  But the "victories" are hollow, because they were nothing but a ratification of the status-quo-ante.  Over the last ten years, those states collectively had carried out a total of three executions.  To say now that they have adopted laws "abolishing the death penalty" packs all the wallop of saying that Hawaii has adopted a law abolishing glaciers.

Fourth, Gov. O'Malley's abolition effort succeeded in spite of, not because of, the Maryland electorate's view of capital punishment.  The Washington Post, which opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, had the honesty to publish a story with a recent poll showing support for capital punishment in the Old Line State at 60%.  That's only slightly lower than the national figure, and was arrived at by putting the question in the somewhat misleading context of asking respondents to choose between the death penalty and life imprisonment "with no chance of parole"  --  which, as we have learned from California, is a bait-and-switch choice.  But even with that, there is no documented "growing tide of disenchantment" among Marylanders with capital punishment. 

And that was before the Boston Marathon massacre........

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