We last discussed the death penalty in February 2010 (plus for a death penalty-related ballot proposition in 2012). Some things have changed since then. Several more states have halted executions temporarily or abolished them altogether. Public opinion in the United States still favors the death penalty, but the majority is slowing declining. Conservatives have come on board on some criminal justice reforms, like mandatory minimum reductions. And, a recent string of botched executions has thrown the mechanics of the death penalty into stark relief. So, we may be on a slow road to abolition. Alternatively, we could be near a tipping point, like we recently were on gay marriage equality. Or, we could stay the way we are now, where death sentences remain a state issue and a few states do most of it.
Most Americans and most of this group are firmly in one camp or the other on the death penalty. So, I have an idea for a way to discuss “is it time to abolish” it in a way that does more than just rehash the pros and cons of the issue (although we can do that, too). How about discussing why it is that most Americans
support support or oppose the death penalty and what it might take to change their minds? Even if you support the death penalty, it might be illuminating to think of this issue in the larger context of how public opinion in the United States gets moved over time. After all, public opinion on some hot button social issues stays remarkably stable over the decades, as we recently discussed regarding abortion. But, in others, like gay marriage, it’s changed rapidly. Why does this happen and what might make it happen on the death penalty – whether you think that’s a good idea or not?
I’m as tired of lecturing each week as you probably are of hearing me. (Okay, probably not.) Either way, I’ll open Monday’s meeting by just spieling out a few statistics on the death penalty’s application in the United States and summarizing recent developments that may (or may not) have the potential to move public opinion. Then, I’ll see if anybody wants to bite on the “what would it take to tip public opinion” angle.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What’s new in the politics of the death penalty in the United States?
- Has public opinion moved on the issue in recent years? Why?
- Why do people support the death penalty (e.g., vengeance, deterrence, religious belief, inertia)? Why do people oppose it (morality/religious, cruel/unusual, racial disparity, cost…)? Is there a difference between the reasons people cite and their real reasons?
- What arguments or evidence would it take to change people’s minds? What kinds of arguments sway Americans on issues of crime, or morality, or anything else?
- What arguments/evidence would make YOU change your mind?
- The latest: Why did it take Arizona two hours recently to execute a man?
- Death penalty trends/facts: Both recommended
- Pros and cons:
- Very basic pros/cons.
- More pros: Article refuting the “innocence” issue death penalty opponents make.
- More cons: Amnesty International USA facts sheets on death penalty issues: Racial bias, arbitrariness, executing the mentally ill, etc.
- Tipping point? Read both.
- Public opinion: Do you think these explain the “why?”
- International law and the death penalty. (ABA article)
Next Week: How Valid Are Criticisms of Obama From the Left?