Some American Public Opinion in Spring 2015.

Standardized testing has been all the rage among educational reformers for more than a decade.[1] Only 20 percent of Americans think that it has done more good than harm to the students or the schools; 49 percent think that it has done more harm than good; and 31 percent “don’t know.” However, “don’t know” isn’t one of the options on a standardized test. Would it count as a correct answer if it was an option?

Americans frequently “don’t know” where they stand on public issues, but that isn’t the case with gay marriage. Today 61 percent favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry.[2] Opposition to gay marriage rallies 35 percent. That leaves just 4 percent who don’t know.

Reading the statistics above can obscure, rather than clarify, where Americans stand on the issue. Liberal media and public figures heaped abuse on Indiana’s “religious freedom” law on the grounds that it permitted discrimination against gays. Polls revealed that 49 percent of Americans agreed with the law’s critics. However, 47 percent believed that wedding-related businesses should be able to refuse their services to gay couples. Naturally, the vast majority of the dissenters were Republicans (68 percent), but a third of Democrats (33 percent) also supported business’ “right to choose.”[3]

Support for capital punishment has been slipping in America in recent decades. In 1988, 78 percent favored the death penalty for murder. In 2015, 56 percent support the death penalty for murder. Slightly more of the nation, 60 percent, supports imposing the death penalty on Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber.[4] However, opposition to the death penalty is stronger among some groups than among other groups. Thus California juries are more willing to assign someone the death penalty than are California judges to allow the penalty to be carried out. Currently, there are 751 people on death row in California, but there have been no executions in almost ten years.[5] In a remarkable demonstration of core values, in early April 2015, 62 percent of Boston voters favored sentencing Dzhokar Tsarnaev to life in prison, rather than to death, if/when he was convicted for his part in the Boston Marathon bombing.[6]

The following is no new thing, but it has come to the attention of white America as a reasonable possibility. While 61 percent of all Americans express “great” or “fair” confidence in their local police, the number plummets to 36 percent among African-Americans.[7] That means that 39 percent don’t feel “great” or “fair” confidence in their local police. Who are these people? They can’t all be members of the ACLU. Since African-Americans make up about 11 percent of the population, that would suggest that 7-8 percent of the American population (the two-thirds of the 11 percent who are African-American) lack “great” or “fair” confidence in their local police. If 39 percent of Americans over-all lack “great” or “fair” confidence in their local police, then 31-32 percent of Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic Americans also lack “great” or “fair” confidence in their local police. The crisis of confidence in local police reaches far beyond high school students rioting in Baltimore when they should be in study hall.

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 3 April 2015, p. 15.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 8 May 2015, p. 17. Of course the phrasing of the statement allows for the comic possibility that many Americans think that gay men want to marry lesbians. “Marriage means one man and one woman.”   So that would be—you know—OK.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 17 April 2015, p. 17.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 1 May 2015, p. 17.

[5] The Week, 10 April 2015, p. 14.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 3 April 2015, p. 15.

[7] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 8 May 2015, p. 17.

Decline of the Death Penalty.

In 1972 the United States Supreme Court imposed a moratorium on capital punishment on the grounds that “the arbitrary and capricious application of capital punishment in America represented cruel and unusual punishment.” In 1976 it permitted executions to start up again after states introduced reforms to address the concerns expressed by the Court. Since 1976 American courts sentenced over 4,600 people to death. Of these, 820 were executed and 102 were exonerated. This put the US in the same lethal category as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

However, these figures are very deceptive. First of all, twelve states (Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota) did not have a death penalty. Second, of the 38 states with a death penalty, six (New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Kansas, South Dakota) have had no executions since 1973. Third, of the 32 states that employed the death penalty after 1973, seventeen states used it fewer than ten times for a total of 59 executions in thirty years. Fourth, the fifteen states that used the death penalty ten or more times, account for over seventy percent of the executions. These states fall into several groups, but share a certain identity. There are those states with ten to 49 executions (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Illinois, Arizona, California). There are those with fifty to one hundred executions (Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma). And there are two states where you absolutely, positively did not want to get convicted of murder. Of the 820 executed, 289 (35 percent) were executed by Texas and thirteen by Delaware.  The common feature of most of these states is that they are Southern states.

Even these figures disguise important differences. In Texas, county prosecutors have the freedom to seek and courts can impose the death penalty. The vast majority of counties in Texas imposed no death penalties after 1973. So whence come the high totals for Texas (and hence for the United States as a whole)? Five urban counties accounted for 143 of the 289 death penalty cases: Nueces County (Corpus Christi) 10 executions; Bexar County (San Antonio) 18 executions; Tarrant County (Fort Worth) 22 executions; Dallas County (Dallas) 26 executions; and Harris County (Houston) 67 executions). Why are some small areas so bloody-minded?

Another distinction is temporal. While executions became legal once more in 1976, virtually none took place until 1987. [This probably reflected the delays introduced by extensive appeals.] Between 1994 and 1999, the number of executions accelerated.

What has happened since 2003? Actually, since 1999 the tide has been falling. DNA evidence began to become available. Deference to DNA evidence now sets a high bar for a death sentence. “Life-without-parole” emerged as an acceptable alternative, in the US if not in Scandinavia. Pharmaceutical companies have fled the lethal injection market. Six states have abolished the death penalty and the governors of two other states have imposed moratoriums. The number of death sentences issued each year has fallen from 300 in 1996 to 72 in 2014; the number of executions has fallen from 98 in 1999 to 35 in 2014. The geographical distribution of death sentences and executions remains pretty much as before.

Similarly, the number of death sentences in China also has fallen—from 24,000 (1983) to 12,000 (2002) to a mere 2,400 (2014).

Jen Joynt and Carrie Shuchart, “The Nation in Numbers: Mortal Justice,” Atlantic, March 2003, pp. 40-41.

Ashby Jones, “Executions, Death Penalties Hit Multiyear Lows in U.S.,” WSJ, 18 December 2014.