Professor traces public support for the death penalty

June 19, 1995

EDITORS: To interview Ellsworth or to obtain a copy of the article, contact Diane Swanbrow at (313) 747-4416.

NEW YORK—American support for the death penalty has steadily increased since 1966, University of Michigan researcher Phoebe C. Ellsworth will say at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Society here July 1.

Nearly three-quarters of the public now favor capital punishment, compared with 47 percent in 1966.

But as support for the death penalty has been going up, belief that it helps to deter crimes has been going down, according to Ellsworth, professor of psychology and of law at the U-M, and Samuel R. Gross, professor of law at U-M, who co-authored the research.

In the invited presentation, Ellsworth will describe changes in Americans’ support for the death penalty over the last 35 years and suggest some of the emotional, racial and political factors underlying these changes.

“By far the most common reason given for favoring the death penalty,” Ellsworth notes, ” is retribution. Deterrence is cited as a reason less often than it was 10 years ago, and there has been a slight upward trend in people’s willingness to mention the cost of keeping a person in prison as a reason for favoring the death penalty. ” (It is important to note that the cost of keeping a person in prison for life is actually less than the cost of execution, Ellsworth and Gross say.)

Ellsworth’s presentation is based on research with Gross, originally published in the Journal of Social Issues.

Samuel R. GrossJournal of Social Issues