Surveys show decrease in support for death penalty among some Nebraskans

Nov. 30, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·

Lisa Kort-Butler is a University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist who has studied close to 40 years of state social attitudes survey data about Nebraska respondents' views of the death penalty. (Courtesy photo)

University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist Lisa Kort-Butler and a team of researchers recently made a presentation to the American Society of Criminology pointing to what they say is a decline in support for the death penalty among Nebraskans. Their analysis is of Nebraska Annual Social Indicator Surveys conducted by the Nebraska Bureau of Sociological Research over the past 30 years. Their findings come despite this month's election with 61 percent of Nebraska voters voting to reinstate the death penalty.

NET NEWS: Why are we seeing public support for the death penalty drop?

LISA KORT-BUTLER: I think a few reasons. One thing that's happened, certainly over the course of time, is that crime rates have gone down in the U.S. So there's probably less excitement or anxiousness about crime. I think other issues have gained our attention over time. I would think also as new information has come to light about exonerations, about disparities in who is sentenced to be executed, as well as maybe some information about how much it costs us relative to other punishments, people have been less interested in pursuing the death penalty as an option.

"For" or "Against"

  • Social attitudes surveys conducted by the Nebraska Bureau of Sociological Research and compiled by Lisa Kort-Butler and her team show support for the death penalty among Nebraska respondents has fallen from a high of 75 percent in 1987 to 45 percent in 2016.
  • The survey is sent to about 4,500 Nebraska addresses each year, and has a response rate of about 30 percent and a margin of error of about 4 percent.
  • According to the latest national Pew Center Research Poll, 49 percent of U.S. citizens support the death penalty. According to the latest national Gallup Poll, 60 percent of U.S. citizens support the death penalty.
  • Source: University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Nebraska Annual Social Indicator Surveys

NET NEWS: I don’t have to tell you this information flies in the face of what we saw earlier this month with Nebraskans voting to retain the death penalty. Why the contrast?

LISA KORT-BUTLER: Yes. Absolutely. With what’s happened nationally and what's happened in Nebraska, with our own data we've seen this decline in support over time. In Nebraska, going into the election and actually in the past few years, we've been about evenly split when it comes to support for the death penalty. But what our data show and what's been shown in other (national) studies is when people start thinking about the death penalty, they're thinking about a variety of issues. They're thinking about what they think is happening with crime, which may not meet what reality suggests with other data. They're thinking about their personal feelings when it comes to crime. One thing we see consistently in Nebraska is that people who feel angry about crime are more likely to support the death penalty. We also see in our data that when people aren't feeling very trusting about the government when it comes to crime, they may lean toward solutions that seem more permanent, if you will, when it comes to the death penalty. So what we often say about the death penalty, as a form of punishment, is it serves as kind of emotional function for people that when they think about dealing with crime and how to solve the problem it seems like a solution that is permanent, that is tangible, and that fits some of those emotional feelings people have.

NET NEWS: What about the means of execution? There’s the discussion now about whether to continue following a three drug protocol with lethal injection. Did that come up at all?

LISA KORT-BUTLER: We didn't ask that specific question. I think reaching back to some of the earlier data that we've collected in Nebraska, so in ’87 and ’97, when we were transitioning to lethal injection, support was much higher when we were still using things like the electric chair. I'm not sure how much people think about the means when it comes to execution. But again, we didn't ask specifically. We are asking that in the future but we didn’t ask it in these past few surveys.

NET NEWS: You brought up exonerations. We’ve been hearing about that more in the media with several high profile cases. Do you think those have had an influence on public opinion?

LISA KORT-BUTLER: I think it's something that's definitely been given more attention. People in my field have been paying more attention to that issue. There are organizations who are actively working with folks to
try to get information to exonerate people. I think one thing we know from our own data is when people think the death penalty is applied unfairly, they're less likely to support it. So things like exonerations potentially speak to this sense of unfairness when it comes to the death penalty.

NET NEWS: What do we do with this information moving forward?

LISA KORT-BUTLER: We're really interested in what kind of factors influence peoples’ decision making. One thing we've been focusing on over the past few years is how things like media and people's consumption of the media influence what they think and how they feel about crime. Is it the case that when we see serious sorts of crimes - and some of them were being revisited and just kept before the selection - do those things influence people when they walk into the voting booth? Some of our past data suggests that's the case. In 2011, we saw these effects of media potentially influencing how people think about the death penalty. We're still interested in looking at those emotional states, people's mistrust of the government, as well as factors of fairness. How are people processing those issues? It's not clear when people say they're “unsure” on our surveys. We do ask, “Do you want the death penalty or would you prefer life in prison? Are you unsure?” When those folks walk into the voting booth, they have to make a choice. They don't get to be unsure in the voting booth. We're really interested in exploring how people who are unsure about the death penalty make decisions when it comes to something like voting.

*Editor's Note: Changes were made to clarify the information in this article.