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morgan

Aug 28, 2009

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Roy Morgan has released a poll that has an absolute cracker of a history behind it – containing data that goes back all the way to 1947, close to when the polling organisation first started. It looks at the proportion of people that believe the death penalty should be applied for those found guilty of murder compared to the proportion that believe imprisonment should be the penalty.

The poll was taken using what looks like the same sample from the Security Threat poll we looked at the other day – a phone poll running a sample of 687 for an MoE that maxes out around the 3.7% mark.

The first question asked was:

Next about the penalty for murder. In your opinion, should the penalty for murder be death or imprisonment?

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The current results came in at 64% supporting imprisonment and only 23% supporting the death penalty, a far cry from the 67/24 pro-death penalty split that was measured when the question was first asked back in 1947. It’s interesting how there appeared to be a bit of a resurgence in support for the death penalty over the late 80’s to mid 90’s, but which declined substantially over the last 10 years.

There was a follow up to this question which asked:

Where the penalty for murder is imprisonment — should it be for life — or should the judge fix the number of years, depending on the evidence?

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Again, during the late 80’s through to the mid 90’s, public support for the harsher option – mandatory life sentences – had a surge of support before declining substantially after 1995

A further question was asked concerning the public’s view of Australians caught drug trafficking overseas, and where they were sentenced to death:

In Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Singapore and some other countries, the penalty for drug trafficking is death.  If an Australian is convicted of trafficking drugs in another country and sentenced to death, in your opinion, should the penalty be carried out or not?

This question initially referred to Malaysia only. Sri Lanka was added in 1989 and Indonesia and Singapore were added in 2005

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Yet again we see the same pattern that we witnessed earlier.

If we track the harshest sentencing option provided for these three questions over the period of 1986 to 2009, a consistent trend becomes clear.

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Australians are slowly but surely becoming less harsh in their views on the death penalty, mandatory life sentencing and the death penalty being applied to Australians found guilty of drug trafficking overseas. This runs counter to what we often see and here in the popular press over law and order issues. It would be interesting to see some polling on mandatory sentencing for crimes less than murder to find out whether the pattern of diminishing harshness we’re seeing here on these topics also holds across the full spectrum crime and sentencing.

UPDATE:

Robert Corr adds an interesting two bobs worth using some Australian Institute of Criminology research, as well as some historical stats  that appeared in the Melbourne University Law Review.

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17 comments

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17 thoughts on “Our Changing Views on the Death Penalty

  1. feral sparrowhawk

    It was often said that if we allowed citizens initiated referenda the first one up would be one on the death penalty, and it would pass. This was enough to scare a lot of people off the idea. I’m not an advocate of CIR, but it is nice to see that we’ve grown enough sense that at least this particular disaster can now safely be written off.

  2. Jim Reiher

    Even though emotions rage during the most violent of crimes (like the rape murder of Anita Cobby in NSW), in more sober times, we realise the ineffectiveness of the death penalty. Amnesty International has excellent literature on this topic. They have shown that in the US it costs more to execute someone than to keep them in jail for life. (The cost of appeals; of the court system; the high costs of the death penalty jail wings where prisoners await execution; etc). But of course, the economic argument should not win the day anyway. Even if it cost more to keep someone in jail for life, than kill them, there are compelling other arguments to take into account. In states in the US where the death penalty is used, it is clearly used more on the poor and the black (God help the poor black man) than on the wealthy or the white. And that is for the very same crimes! There is racism and class issues that come into this discussion as well. The well resourced and well educated can escape the penalty of the less well educated and poor. Furthermore, the death penalty is too final: if a mistake has been made then at least some justice can be done even if some injustice has happened before hand. (Lindy Chamberlain for eg). And the hope that the death penalty brings some kind of peace or even “joy” to the families of victims, has been shown to be a false expectation more often than not. Usually it does not bring closure or peace. And what it does do is create another family of grieving members who have now also lost someone. I hope and trust that Australia will never re-introduce the death penalty in any state or territory. We need strong penalties for serious crimes: lengthy sentences that are actually kept. But never the death penalty. Indeed, if there really were lengthy punishments for the worst crimes, people would not call out for the death penalty.

  3. Mark Lever

    An update: Texas now has a clear cut case of state murder of an innocent man.

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/07/090907fa_fact_grann?yrail

    a compelling and deeply disturbing read.

  4. Andrew Lewis

    It is pleasing to see the trend. A country that supports state enacted death cannot be called a civilisation.

    The comment that gaol is somewhere “where the only punishment is the deprivation of liberty in what are really very good conditions”, can only be described as ignorance. Nobody who knows anything about gaol will agree with that statement.

    Since when did Australians start spelling gaol ‘jail’. Too many american cop shows, methinks

  5. Australia Votes

    That spike in the late 80s was due to the Anita Cobby murder. In fact a poll taken around that time (I think just in NSW where the crime took place) had around 85-90% of people supporting the death penalty for those involved.

  6. Big Nose

    This just confirms that the old dears are dying off (People who support the death penalty are over 65 on average). Which is a wonderful example of statistics at work!

  7. Jaeger

    Tony Robinson’s “Crime and Punishment” series on the history of law and order in Britain is quite interesting in this context.

    We’ve certainly come a long way from “trial by ordeal”, but I wonder if the deterrence effect of punishment has been lost on the altar of political correctness?

    I think the death penalty is ineffective: those committing such crimes often don’t consider, don’t care, or even relish the punishment. (How do you reason with someone that believes that death – e.g. “martyrdom” – is a reward?)

    For lesser crimes, a “Facebook of Shame” seems to have a lot going for it.

  8. Peter T

    I spent over a decade in close proximity to law enforcement, and two things that became apparent are that

    1. While most crimes are committed on impulse or under the influence of the idiocy of youth, there are those for whom criminality is their life (my favourite was a bloke in his 70s, whose record went back to 1946, and who I doubt had spent as long as a year out of trouble since). For these people the prospect of reform is very low, the costs of incarceration high and the degree of damage to everyone else resulting from their habits is high. It’s not so much any one crime as being a confirmed sociopath. It’s also asking a lot of someone to be the jailer – I had the impression that being a keeper of these people was a deforming occupation. The death penalty may be the best option for these people – they effectively are making war on society.

    2. Jail does nothing to rehabilitate. The evidence suggests that changing people’s society is the key – putting them together with all the worst people is practically guaranteed to make people more inclined to ciminality. We need to find another Botany Bay.

  9. badge

    Hmmmm. On one hand there are people that do not deserve to walk the earth. Thier actions are so disgusting what right do they have to life. On the other I could not flick the switch so it is dificult to support the death penaly. But if someone else was happy to – and there was absolutely no doubt I would not get in the way.

    But how long can we keep putting people in jail at a cost of $100k per head per year, where the only punishment is the deprivation of liberty in what are really very good conditions. The purpose of imprisonment is to rehabilitate i would of thought so that a released prisoner can rejoin society and act in a manner a resonable society expects. Clearly not enought education and counselling occurs and people are certainly not reasonably supported when they exit prison to have a half fair shake at not reoffending. Indeed much of society shuns them and offers little opportunity to have a normal life.

    So – some peole do not deserve to live on after thier crimes, those that do go to jail, shoul be appropriately punished beyound being locked up, but need genuine rehabiliation and a fair go when released, and we have to stop avoiding putting people who commit crimes in jail (presumably due to cost and capacity issues to some degree) because this situation is just creating hovic on our streets. Happy to pay a few more dollars in tax for a safe and civil society, otherwise we will end up imprisoned in our own fortified homes and the animals will rule the streets (shit we may already be well on the way).

  10. Syd Walker

    Excellent article, encouraging news – and some fine comments too, with odd exceptions 🙂

  11. gef05

    “I happily admit to supporting the death penalty.”

    What an odd statement. I understand some people believe killing is okay, but to be happy about it is just, well, odd.

  12. Nipper Quigley

    “Guilt beyond doubt” – according to a jury?
    Have you not read ANY of the literature on the unreliability of jury decisions?

  13. markporter34

    Of all the dog whistles used by our former PM he never used this one. Looking at the trend it easy to know why.

  14. Patrick Fogarty

    I happily admit to supporting the death penalty. It is an appropriate punishment for the most heinous of offenders when their guilt is beyond doubt. IE: Martin Bryant and Ivan Milat.

    Some crimes are just so sickening, violent and depraved that the best possible option for public welfare is to render it impossible for these criminals to strike again.

    I find it hard to justify not executing someone like Bin Laden if he is captured.

  15. Floccinaucinihilipilificator

    I’ve often wondered about the so-called conservative support for the death penalty. I mean if you ostensibly do not trust government not to stuff things up, why give them the power of life and death over the populace? Pity there wasnt a break down of the 23% in favour by party to see if there is any basis to it.
    Treason (famously) used to carry the death penalty, and once upon a time using forged documents to implicate a head of government in illegal activities would have been considered treasonous. Something to mull over, what.

  16. jeebus

    I thought it was curious that the events of Bali and 9/11 had no impact on these numbers, until noticing there’s a huge gap in the polling from 1995 to 2005. Still, interesting results nonetheless.

  17. Mark Lever

    This is enormously gratifying. One of my most scarring childhood memories is hearing about Australia’s last execution, of Ronald Ryan in Pentridge in 1967. I had reason to re-read Ron Saw’s Walkley winning coverage many years later. It remains one of the high points in Australian journalism and a prime example of how good reporting can change history. No politician again would be game to risk the aprobrium ultimately heaped on Victorian Premier Henry Bolte.

    I went on to cover the hanging of two hapless Australian drug addicts in Malaysia in 1986 for AAP and those memories are just as scarring, both in the actual barbarity and its cynical exploitation by sections of the media and politics. I like to think my writing also made some small contribution to the rarity of these events in our region ever since.

    We’ve come a long way. Someone tell the Texans it is possible to have a cohesive, safe and civilised society without routine resort to state-sanctioned murder.

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