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Is it that we've locked up to many criminals, or that we have too much crime?

Congressional backers of slashing mandatory minimum sentences plainly believe the former.  Their main slogan is "incarceration nation," and they claim there's a "bi-partisan consensus" to cut the prison population.

One thing I learned in my days as a litigator is to listen for what you're not hearing. What I never seem to hear, amidst all these claims of consensus, is any polling results among ordinary people.  This makes a suspicious man like me wonder whether backers of so-called "reform" know enough to prefer not to take a poll; with all the George Soros money they've got, they could certainly commission one if they wanted.

I just stumbled across a poll, although it's a year old and asks a slightly different question. It's from Rasmussen, and I'll quote the (very short) story in full (emphasis added):

Americans feel even more strongly that the biggest problem with the criminal justice system is that too many criminals are set free. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 68% of U.S. adults believe that the bigger problem with law enforcement and the legal system is that too many criminals are released, not that too many innocent people are arrested. Eighteen percent (18%) hold the opposite view and think the bigger problem is that too many innocent people are arrested. Fifteen percent (15%) are undecided.

What backers of the Smarter Sentencing Act mean when they say there's a "consensus" in favor of the bill is now clear:  There's a consensus among cozy interest groups and academic leftists.  Talk to the man on the street, and it's a different story. 


Ohio DP Poll

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Quinnipiac Polling Institute has this poll in Ohio, mostly about the governor's race but also with a couple of questions about the death penalty.  Unfortunately, it appears that Quinnipiac is backsliding on the questions it asks.

As I have noted several times on this blog, the main problem in death penalty polling is that the questions often fail to distinguish between the penalty for the typical murder, which most people agree should be life in prison, and the penalty for the worst murders, which is the actual point of debate.

The generic question in death penalty polls, which Gallup has been asking since the 30s, goes something like Question 40 in this poll, "Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?"  This question understates actual support for the death penalty for the worst murders, merely asking about murder generally.  Even phrased that way, however, the death penalty is favored by more than a 2-to-1 margin, 68-26.  The death penalty is heavily favored in every political affiliation, both sexes, and every age group.

So what does the heading of the press release say?  "Voters Divided on Death Penalty"

To get "divided," it is necessary to skew the question to the max in favor of the anti side.
Gallup has released its annual poll on support for the death penalty. On the question that Gallup has asked since the 30s, "Are you in favor of the death penalty for murder?", there is a bit of further erosion, although support is still overwhelmingly "yes" to that question.

As I have noted before here, though, the traditional question is deficient in that it could be understood to be asking about the death penalty for all murders or the typical murder.  I would answer "no" to the question, so understood, myself.

Another question Gallup asks better reflects the actual policy question of whether we should impose the death penalty on the worst murderers:  "In your opinion, is the death penalty imposed -- [ROTATED: too often, about the right amount, or not often enough]?"  The sum of right+not enough constitutes support for the death penalty as it presently is or tougher.

By this measure, support is up a tad since 2011, the last time Gallup asked the question, and opposition is down a tad.  "Right" + "not enough" totals 70%, up from 67%, while "too often" slips from 25% to 22%.
A number of times on this blog, I have been critical of the way poll questions on the death penalty are worded.  See prior posts here, here, and here.  An internal poll taken for the folks who want to fix California's death penalty asked the question in a way that captures the real public policy question better than any I have seen:

Some people argue that the death penalty should be repealed because it is too complicated and rarely enforced. Regulations have cost taxpayers millions of dollars because inmates must be kept in separate cells, and the appeal process is long and costly. Life in prison will be cheaper for taxpayers.

Others say that we should keep the death penalty in California but reform it to reduce the number of frivolous appeals and lengthy delays. Death row prisoners should not get expensive special treatment, like private cells, and should be forced to work and make restitution to their victim's families. Instead of repealing the death penalty, we should fix the system so that it is enforced.

Which of these two views do you agree with more -- the first statement or the second statement?
The first statement is essentially the argument for Proposition 34, death penalty repeal, on last year's California ballot.  The second is the "mend it, don't end it" position.

Changing v. Stable Views on Issues

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Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport has this brief video on how the public's views change drastically on some issues and very little on others. Of all the issues Gallup polls on, Newport chooses the death penalty as the example of an issue with very stable polling results.  The "yes" answer to Gallup's basic question was 59% in 1939, 63% last December.  Interracial marriage, in contrast, has gone from near-unanimous rejection to overwhelming approval in about half a century.

The anti-DP propaganda machine wants you to think that public support for the death penalty is collapsing.  The people who poll as a profession don't think so.

As I have explained previously, Gallup's basic question understates actual support for the death penalty.  It is useful for examining long-term trends, though, simply because of the length of time Gallup has been asking it.

Campaigning on a Platform of Legalizing Pot

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One of the Democratic candidates for Mayor of New York City, Comptroller John C. Liu, has proposed legalizing pot. The Washington Post story is here.  Prof. Doug Berman had this to say about it:

I think this story is notable and significant not only because a notable NYC politician is making a public case for marijuana legalization, but also because it seems likely to get this mayoral candidate a lot more media attention in the weeks and months ahead. And if this pot legalization advocacy not only improves Liu's media hits, but also his overall standing in the mayoral [polls], lots of other politician are sure to take note.

OK, that's cool.  So let's take a look at Mr. Liu's polling these days.

Polls and Question Wording

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Lydia Saad of Gallup reports on a poll that is as interesting for polling methodology as it is for the underlying question.  How would you answer these two questions?

A:  When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient's life by some painless means if the patient and his or her family request it?

B.  When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?
Substantially the same question, right?  The two questions should produce the same result, right?

Dope, Death and Spin

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You have to marvel at how liberals package criminal law issues.  They love dope, so that, according to Time magazine, is the wave of the future.  They detest the death penalty, so that is on the way to history's dustbin. 

Ah, yes, but there's a catch.  

Who's Winning the Death Penalty Debate?

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Reader Federalist notes in a comment that, while abolitionists do indeed lie in the death penalty debate, they're winning.

I can see why he's worried.  On the whole, however, abolitionism is not winning.

The best evidence of this is the defeat of Prop 34 in California five months ago.  It lost by close to a half million votes, at the same time Californians were overwhelmingly choosing to loosen their three-strikes law (by over four and a half million votes) and re-elect President Obama (by over three million votes).  When voters in our largest and one of our most liberal states choose the death penalty over LWOP, and do so on the same day they are otherwise massively choosing two distinctly liberal outcomes, it's just very, very hard to make the case that abolitionism is winning.  When it's losing in California, it's losing period.

I explained the ramifications of the Prop 34 vote at some length here, but there is yet more evidence that our side is doing better than the opposition.  Five items in particular should be noted.

How Not to Word Poll Questions

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An outfit called Public Policy Polling has an exemplar of how not to do a poll.  The questions in this North Carolina poll are intentionally loaded to produce an anti-death-penalty result.  Surprise, surprise, surprise, as Carolinian Gomer Pyle used to say, they get the result they wanted.
Aaron Davis and Peyton Craighill report in the WaPo on a poll showing that Marylanders oppose repeal of the death penalty by 60-36. The poll results are here.

When the poll asked the question most polls have asked, "do you favor or oppose the death penalty for people convicted of murder?" the result was 54-41.  However, when they asked the same people the actual question to be decided, "Which view is closer to your own, that Maryland law should allow for the death penalty or should the death penalty be abolished and replaced with life in prison with no chance of parole?" the result was 60-36.

This confirms, as we have noted several times on this blog, that the traditional poll question wording understates the actual support for the death penalty.  The question could be understood to ask about death for all murders, when the actual question is only whether that penalty should be available for the worst murders.

Fortunately, Maryland has a procedure to put the question on the ballot.  The people of Maryland, unlike the people of Connecticut, can overturn their legislators if they vote contrary to the wishes of the people.

Lydia Saad reports for Gallup:

Americans' support for the death penalty as punishment for murder has plateaued in the low 60s in recent years, after several years in which support was diminishing. Sixty-three percent now favor the death penalty as the punishment for murder, similar to 61% in 2011 and 64% in 2010.
The "diminishing" is relative to the all-time high in 1994.  Almost any quantity one cares to measure is "down" if the all-time high is chosen as reference point. "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."

The death penalty retains majority support across all party identifications, all age brackets, both sexes, all regions, and all education levels.  A majority of self-identified conservatives and moderates support it, with a slight edge for opponents among liberals.  On racial lines, Gallup gives numbers only for "whites" and "nonwhites," which is not particularly helpful given that opposition has generally been stronger among blacks than other minorities.

Saad concludes, "The future course of public support for the death penalty may depend as much on the impact of unforeseen tragedies such as the Oklahoma City bombing or Newtown shootings, as it does on political campaigns by death penalty supporters and opponents. However, for now, views appear to be at a standstill, with just over six in 10 Americans in favor, essentially unchanged since 2010."

Field Poll on Prop 34

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The latest Field Poll shows the "yes" vote on Prop 34 ahead of the "no" but still less than a majority.  This poll is something of an outlier, as all the other polls show the "no" vote ahead.  For results and links to the other polls, see our Polls category on this blog.

Update:  Don Thompson has this story for AP.

Prop 34 Support Surging or Dropping?

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Ah, the strange world of political polling.

On Friday, the USC Dornsife/LA Times Poll showed the race for Proposition 34 (California's death penalty repeal initiative) to be quite close, as noted in this post.  The change was so dramatic from the previous LAT poll that the Times headline said support for the initiative "surges."  It wasn't that dramatic a change from the polls as a whole, though, as the Field Poll was similarly close, and the Business Roundtable/Pepperdine Poll showed just a 5% lead for the "no" side.

Well, the final installment of the Business Roundtable/Pepperdine Poll is out today, and it actually shows not a surge but a small drop in support for Proposition 34.  The trend line is here.  The lead for the "no" side has widened just a hair since October 11, and it now stands at 41.3% yes to 47.9% no.  The "margin of error" is 3%.  (That is actually just the 95% confidence interval on sampling.  It doesn't consider other sources of error such as methodology issues.)  The "unsure" vote comes in at 10.8%, and historically the voters remaining undecided this late tend to vote no on ballot measures. (See this post.)

USC Poll: Prop 34 Close

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Results of the latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll show the race for Prop 34 tightening.  When asked the straightforward question, "no" remains ahead, 42-45.  This poll then has the unusual feature of asking the same respondent about the same proposition after first reading the ballot language (which includes a hotly disputed financial assertion).  This is different from the "split sample" method, where half the sample is asked each of two different questions.  In this poll, a few people change their minds on the requestioning, putting the "yes" slightly ahead but less than a majority, 45-42 in the total sample but a razor thin 44-43 among likely voters.

Methodological questions aside, the history of polling on California initiatives is that measures with affirmative support this low this late rarely pass, whether the "yes" is ahead of or behind the "no."  Late-deciding voters tend to break toward "no," as noted in a prior post.

The cause of justice is still ahead, for now, but the financial advantage and favorable press of the friends of murderers remain cause for concern.

BTW, for those wondering what happened to the every-other-Thursday Business Roundtable/Pepperdine poll, they have broken from their usual pattern and will release their final poll next Tuesday.

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