INternational Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences

Vol 1 Issue 2 July 2006


 

Two Americas: Capital Punishment Views among Canadian

and U.S. College Students

 

Eric G. Lambert[1]

David N. Baker[2]

Kasey A. Tucker[3]

The University of Toledo, Toledo,

Ohio, USA

 

Abstract

Canada and the United States have often been compared because of the perceived notion that they are very similar. Further, the effectiveness and application of crime control policies in general, and the use of capital punishment in particular, have received a great deal of attention and garnered much debate in the past decade. This study explores the views of Canadian and U.S. college students toward capital punishment. Overall, the predictors for level of death penalty support were similar for the two groups; however, U.S respondents were much more likely to support capital punishment. Additionally, Canadian respondents were significantly less likely to support the death penalty for the reasons of retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and the instrumental perspective (i.e., law and order), while U.S. respondents were less likely to oppose capital punishment for the reasons of morality, the brutalization effect, or the risk of executing an innocent person.

 

 

Keywords: Capital Punishment; Canada; USA; College students; Attitudes; Perceptions

____________________________________________________________________________

 

Introduction

The topic of crime frequently leads to debate about appropriate crime control policies. Understanding the public’s views toward crime and the criminal justice system is critical, because there is a connection between public opinion and criminal justice policies (Sanders and Roberts, 2000). The death penalty is an extremely controversial subject that can set off passionate debate between proponents and abolitionists. As Whitehead, Blankenship, and Wright (1999) point out, “Given the literal life and death nature of capital punishment, it is important to continue research on this topic” (p. 250). Because of its serious consequences, capital punishment may have received more attention from researchers and pollsters than any other single topic in criminal justice. Extensive polling during the past 60 years has mainly been concerned with determining the degree of support for the death penalty, particularly in the U.S. (Durham, Elrod, and Kinkade, 1996). While this information is important in and of itself, insight into the reasons why people support or oppose capital punishment is even more salient, and has both theoretical and practical implications for abolitionists, proponents, politicians, and social scientists. There are many different reasons for supporting or opposing the death penalty, including deterrence, law and order, retribution, incapacitation, morality/mercy, the brutalization effect, unfair administration, and the risk of executing an innocent person.

Rather than examining the death penalty views of people in a single nation, this study examined the views of college students in two nations, the U.S and Canada. Canada no longer executes individuals for criminal offenses; the U.S. still does. By looking at capital punishment from a cross-cultural perspective, a better understanding of both nations will be gained. “The importance and utility to social science of rigorous cross-national measures is incontestable. They help to reveal not only intriguing differences between countries and cultures, but also aspects of one’s own country and culture that would be difficult or impossible to detect from domestic data alone” (Jowell, 1998, p. 168).

 

Literature Review

There is a perception that Canada resembles the U.S. (Ouimet, 2002). Economically, each has the other nation as its largest trading partner. Additionally, many Canadians travel to the U.S., read U.S. newspapers and periodicals, and watch U.S. movies and TV shows (Lisosky, 2001). There are also many similarities between the criminal justice systems of these countries. There are similar risks of victimization and similar crime trends (Mayhew and Van Dijk, 1997; Ouimet, 2002). There are also significant levels of fear of crime in both countries, which has been linked to greater support for capital punishment (Bohm, 1987; Sprott and Doob, 1997; Weitzer and Kurbin, 2004). Among both the Canadian and U.S. public, there is a perception that the criminal justice system is too lenient with criminal offenders (Kaukinen and Colavecchia, 1999; Roberts, 1994; St. Amand and Zamble, 2001). Additionally, as with U.S. residents, many Canadians believe that life in correctional facilities is too easy for inmates (Roberts, 1994). In sum, the literature supports the contention that the public in both Canada and the U.S. wants more punitive punishment for the offenders.

Media coverage of crime is similar in both nations. There were few differences between Canadian and U.S. television stations in their coverage on crime; both focused on street crimes and law and order issues (Dowler, 2004). There is also a fair amount of crime coverage in newspapers as well (Baron and Hartnagel, 1996). Further, residents of both Canada and the U.S. have similar stereotypes of criminals, including a view that minorities are more likely to commit crimes (Gabor, 1994). It has also been observed that residents of both nations are more concerned with the rights of victims and protecting society from criminals than for the rights of the accused (Kaukinen and Colavecchia, 1999).

There are many similarities between both nations which would suggest that there would be similar death penalty views between residents in Canada and the U.S. On the other hand, there are fundamental differences between both countries which would suggest that there would be significant differences in capital punishment views. “The cultural identity of many Canadians is structured through a perceived dissimilarity with Americans. Simply put, being a ‘Canadian’ means not being an American” (Dowler, 2004, p. 574). Canada is more open to social programs, such as education, medicine, and social assistance (Ouimet, 2002) and is more tolerant of others (e.g., gays and the idea of civil unions) (Lipset, 1990).

The U.S. has greater access to firearms, particularly handguns, and Canadian citizens are far less likely to report owning a handgun than U.S. citizens (Ouimet, 1999). In addition, Canadian residents are more supportive of gun control laws than are U.S. residents (Roberts and Stalans, 1997). In general, sentences tend to be more punitive in the U.S. than in Canada (Ouimet, 2002). In the U.S., there is a real possibility that an innocent person could be executed (Huff, 2002). Even though, Canada does not have the death penalty, there is a growing listing of wrongful conviction cases there as well (Bateman, 2003). Moreover, there is a significant difference in the homicide rates between both nations. The murder rate in the U.S. was about 5.5 per 100,000 in 2004, but was only1.5 per 100,000 in Canada (NationMaster.com, 2006).

 

Overview of Capital Punishment in Canada and the U.S.

From 1892 to 1961, Canada had capital punishment, and death by hanging was the punishment for murder (Amnesty International, 2000). In 1961, murder was divided into capital and non-capital offenses (Amnesty International, 2000). Ultimately, Canada abolished capital punishment entirely for criminal offenders in 1976 (Honeyman and Ogloff, 1996), replacing it with a sentence of life with a possibility of parole after 25 years (Roberts and Stalans, 1997).[4] While the death penalty had been abolished for criminal offenders, it was still possible to sentence a person to death in Canada for military offenses until 1998 (Amnesty International, 2000), although the last person actually executed in Canada was in 1962. From 1867 to 1962, a total of 1,481 people were sentenced to death and a total of 710 people were executed in Canada (Wikipedia, 2005.) In addition to abolishing capital punishment, Canada will not extradite defendants to any country, including the U.S., until it is clear that they will not face the death penalty (United States v. Burns, 2001)

The abolition of capital punishment was a very controversial act. The bill (C-84) which abolished capital punishment in Canada had passed by a very close free vote (Department of Justice, Canada, 2005). The abolition of the death penalty was opposed by many Canadian citizens, many of whom believed that abolishing the death penalty would lead to an increase in murders. A 1995 poll of Canadian residents found that 70% favored the return of capital punishment (Angus Reid Associate, 1995, as cited in Roberts and Stalans, 1997). The level of support fell to 52% by 2001, with only 27% strongly supporting capital punishment (Roberts, 2001). Nevertheless, many in Canada call for the reinstatement of the death penalty. For example, in 1987, the House of Commons held a free vote regarding the reinstatement of the death penalty. While it was defeated, 46% of the votes cast were for reinstatement (Department of Justice, Canada, 2005, p. 1).

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Furman v. Georgia that capital punishment was unconstitutional as it was being administered at the time. In 1976, in Gregg v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. There are five methods of execution in the U.S.: lethal injection (by far the most common practice today), electrocution, gas chamber, hanging, and firing squad. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, over 1000 people have been executed. Today, 38 states and the federal government have death penalty statutes (The Death Penalty Information Center, 2005). From colonial times until the present, more than 19,000 people are estimated to have been executed in the U.S. (Durham et al., 1996). The rate of executions was highest in the 1930s, and lowest in the 1960s, when support for capital punishment hit a record low with less than 50% of the public supporting it. Recent polls indicate that between 60 and 70% of the U.S. public support the death penalty to some degree (The Death Penalty Information Center, 2005).

The abolition of capital punishment in the U.S. is not likely in the near future. Nevertheless, the U.S. public’s support for the death penalty is critical in determining public policy on capital punishment. If public support for the death penalty were reduced, public policy concerning the death penalty would likely change. Ellsworth and Gross (1994) argued that “the legal status of the death penalty in the United States depends upon popular support, actual and perceived . . . . If a clear majority comes to reject this form of punishment, we predict that the Supreme Court, if not Congress and the state legislatures, will soon follow suit” (p. 21-2, 23).

 

 

Brief Review of the Salient Reasons to Support

or Oppose Capital Punishment

Deterrence, law and order, retribution, and incapacitation are the four major reasons provided for supporting the death penalty. Deterrence holds that people can be stopped from committing crime through severe sanctions. Some individuals, especially politicians, claim that executing murderers deters others from committing murder (Ellsworth and Gross, 1994). Supporters of this position advocate that executing convicted murderers is a far more effective deterrent than life imprisonment. It must be noted that the literature strongly suggests that capital punishment has little, if any, deterrent effect on the crime of murder (Bailey, 1991). A further reason provided for supporting the death penalty is that it is needed to maintain law and order in society (Krzycki, 2000). This ideology represents the willingness to use state violence to bring order and is rooted in the instrumentalist perspective (Maxwell and Rivera-Vazquez, 1998). Further, the law and order perspective is tied to the deterrence ideology.

Retribution is the most emotional of the punishment ideologies. Support for the death penalty is frequently based upon emotion, especially the desire for vengeance (Ellsworth and Gross, 1994). Under the “lex talionis[5] or "the law (lex) of retaliation" argument, proponents argue the death penalty fits the crime of murder (i.e., Just Deserts) (Baker, Lambert, and Jenkins, 2005). In addition, retribution can be an emotional response to the horrific and shocking crime of murder (Ellsworth and Gross, 1994). For many, the ideology of retribution is based upon the idea of revenge by the victim’s family and society in general, and that sentencing someone to death relieves the anger and hurt brought forth by the act of violence. In a study of U.S. citizens by Ellsworth and Gross (1994), 79% of capital punishment proponents indicated that they were outraged when a murderer did not receive the death penalty. In a study of Canadian residents, it was observed that retribution was a major reason reported for supporting the death penalty (Vidmar, 1974). In a sentencing study of students at several Canadian colleges, those who voted for the death penalty as a sentence for a murderer were higher in their level of vengeance than those who voted for a sentence of life in prison (Honeyman and Ogloff, 1996). The last major reason provided for supporting the death penalty is incapacitation (Ellsworth and Gross, 1994). Under incapacitation, convicted offenders are controlled so as to minimize their ability to commit future criminal acts. Executing a person is the ultimate form of incapacitation.

Major reasons provided for opposing capital punishment are morality/mercy, promotion of violence, unfair administration, and the risk of executing an innocent person. The morality viewpoint contends that the death penalty is immoral, uncivilized, and cruel (Ellsworth and Gross, 1994). “Abolitionists will, rightly, continue to argue that in executing murderers, the state and its citizens lower themselves to the same moral level as the murderers” (Lilly, 2002, p. 331). A major argument against capital punishment is that it violates the fundamental human right to life. From this perspective, the death penalty violates the standards of dignity and humanity found in a civilized society. In addition, the death penalty undermines society’s moral point that killing is wrong (Hood, 2001). Linked to the morality position is the idea that the death penalty is cruel and violates the principle that it is better to show mercy than it is to respond with violence (Lambert, Clarke, and Lambert, 2004). Another reason provided for opposing the death penalty is that, rather than deterring violence, it can actually increase future violence (Thomson, 1997). Abolitionists refer to increased violence due to capital punishment as “the brutalization effect” (Bowers, 1984; Thomson 1997).

Two administrative concerns are frequently provided as reasons for opposing capital punishment. The first administrative concern is that the death penalty is unfairly imposed. Statistically, in the U.S., minorities and the poor are more likely to be sentenced to death (Radelet and Pierce, 1985). Because it is unfairly applied, many abolitionists argue that the death penalty should be abolished (Ellsworth and Gross, 1994). The second concern is the risk of executing an innocent person. Many innocent persons have been sentenced to death (Huff, 2002). Since 1976, more than 110 people in the U.S. have been exonerated and released from death row (The Death Penalty Information Center, 2005). The issue of executing innocent persons is a major reason provided by many abolitionists for opposing capital punishment (Honeyman and Ogloff, 1996).

Finally, age, race, educational level, gender, and religion have been correlated with death penalty support. Those who are older tend to be more supportive of capital punishment than younger individuals (Bohm, 1987). White persons tend to be more supportive of the death penalty than members of minority groups, particularly in the U.S. (Baker et al., 2005). Education is generally inversely associated with level of support for the death penalty. In general, men are more supportive of capital punishment than women (Bohm, 1987). In the U.S., religious salience (i.e., the importance of religion in a person’s life) and frequency of religious attendance are usually associated with higher support for capital punishment (Grasmick and McGill, 1994).

 

Research Questions

This study focused on three research questions. First, it examined whether there was a difference in level of support for the death penalty between Canadian and U.S. individuals, even after controlling for age, gender, educational level, and importance of religion in a person’s life. Second, it explored people’s views on the major reasons to support or oppose capital punishment, and whether there was a difference in views between Canadian and U.S. respondents. The level of support for capital punishment alone does not tell what “underlies the attitude, whether it is founded upon bedrock support for harsh, retributive punishment or perhaps a more malleable (and mistaken) belief in the deterrent efficacy of the death penalty” (Roberts and Stalans, 1997, p. 8). Third, the impact of the major reasons on the level of support for the death penalty were studied in a multi-variate analysis to determine which reasons best accounted for the variance in the level of support and whether these reasons differed between Canadian and U.S. respondents. While literature on the death penalty has explored reasons for support and opposition surrounding capital punishment, it has not adequately explored which reasons account for the differences in the degree of support or opposition to the death penalty and their relative importance (Lambert et al., 2004).

It is unclear whether there would be differences between Canadian and U.S. citizens on overall level of death penalty support, reasons for supporting or opposing, and the impact of these reasons. Views toward punishment of criminal offenders arise due to a multitude of factors, including social values of justice and socialization (Chung and Bagozzi, 1997). It is clear that culture is very important in helping to shape the views of people on social issues, including the death penalty. The cultures in Canada and the U.S. are both similar, yet unique.

 

Methodology

Sample

In the spring of 2005, a survey of a convenience sample of students at one Canadian university and one in the U.S. was undertaken. Both universities were metropolitan, public universities offering undergraduate, master, and terminal degrees. The Canadian university was located in the province of Ontario and had an enrollment of about 42,000 students. The U.S. University was located in a Midwestern state that has capital punishment and had an enrollment slightly below 20,000. At each university, a survey was administered to students in about a dozen undergraduate courses that represented a wide array of majors, and included classes required by all majors at the university. The survey was explained to the students, and it was emphasized both verbally and in writing that the survey was voluntary. Students completed the survey during class time and were asked not to complete the survey if they had done so in another class. For the Canadian university, a total of 409 usable surveys were returned. For the U.S. university, a total of 484 usable surveys were returned. Thus, a total of 893 surveys were used in this study.

In terms of gender for the overall group of respondents, 60% were women and 40% were men. There were more women in the group of students from Canada as compared to the U.S. group (65% versus 56%). The median age of the respondents was 20. The mean age was 20.78, with a standard deviation of 4.29. The Canadian respondents were slightly younger than the U.S. respondents (19.39 versus 21.96 years old). For the entire group, 37% were freshmen, 26% were sophomores, 21% were juniors, and 16% were seniors. The Canadian students were more likely to be freshmen than the U.S. students.

 

Measures

Support for the death penalty.

Respondents were asked their degree of support or opposition for the death penalty using a seven-item response category (see Table 1). Some death penalty attitudinal research has collapsed the measure of support for capital punishment into a dichotomous variable measuring representing support or opposition. We feel this fails to capture the subtle but important differences in support for and opposition against the death penalty found among different groups. There is a difference between supporting somewhat and very strongly supporting the death penalty.

 

Reasons to support or oppose the death penalty

The respondents were also asked a series of statements on reasons to support or oppose capital punishment. These statements were answered using a five-point Likert type of response scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” (see Table 2 for the specific statements).

 

 

Additional multi-variate variables.

Gender, age, academic level, importance of religion in a person’s life, and location of the university were used in multi-variate analysis. Gender was measured as a dichotomous variable representing whether the respondent was male (coded as 1) or female (coded as 0). Age was measured in continuous years. Academic level was an ordinal variable coded as 1 = freshman, 2 = sophomore, 3 = junior, and 4 = senior. Respondents were asked the extent that religion had played in their lives. Nine percent of the respondents indicated not at all (coded as 1), 32% indicated not much (coded as 2), 27% indicated a fair amount (coded as 3), and 33% indicated a great deal (coded as 4). Finally, a dichotomous variable was created measuring whether the respondent was from Canada (coded as 1) or the U.S. (coded as 0)

Results

The results for overall level of death penalty support are presented in Table 1. For each level of support for the death penalty, U.S. respondents were significantly higher than Canadian respondents. For each category of opposition, Canadian respondents were significantly higher as compared to U.S. students. The degree of difference in support for capital punishment was even more striking when the measure was collapsed into support, uncertain, and oppose. For U.S. respondents, 64% supported the death penalty to some degree, 6% were uncertain, and 30% were opposed. Conversely, only 27% of the Canadian respondents supported capital punishment, 9% were uncertain, and 65% were opposed. A multi-variate analysis (not reported) was conducted with the death penalty measure as the dependent variable and gender, age, academic level, importance of religion, and nation of respondent as the independent variables. The nationality of the respondent was the best predicator of death penalty support, followed by gender.

 

Table 1

Percentages of Support for the Death Penalty by Nation

 

 

Degree of Support

 

Total (N = 893)

 

Canada (n = 409)

 

U.S. (n = 484)

 

Very Strongly Opposed

 

21

 

32

 

12

 

Strongly Opposed

 

12

 

19

 

7

 

Somewhat Opposed

 

12

 

14

 

11

 

Uncertain

 

8

 

9

 

6

 

Somewhat Favor

 

24

 

16

 

31

 

Strongly Favor

 

12

 

6

 

18

 

Very Strongly Favor

 

10

 

5

 

15

 

Note. Percentages may not total 100% due to rounding.

Chi-square = 139.34, degrees of freedom = 6, p < .001; t value = 12.33, df = 891, p < .001.

 

Reasons for supporting or opposing the death penalty were examined to determine whether there were differences between the two groups of students. The percentage responses for the 16 items representing reasons for supporting or opposing the death penalty are presented in Table 2. On every reason for supporting capital punishment, the students from Canada were much lower in their support than were the students from the U.S. For example, 41% of the U.S. respondents agreed that murderers deserved the death penalty because they took a life, while only 13% of Canadian students agreed. In addition, for every one of the reasons for opposing the death penalty, the Canadian respondents were much higher in their agreement than were the U.S. respondents. For example, 73% of the respondents from Canada agreed that one of the reasons that they opposed capital punishment is that there is a chance that an innocent person will be executed, while only 38% of the students from the U.S. agreed.

 

 

Note. Percentages may not equal 100% due to rounding. SD = Strongly Disagree, D = Disagree, U = Uncertain, A = Agree, SA = Strongly Agree, and sdv = standard deviation. The degrees of freedom for the Independent t-test are 549. Nation (U.S. = 0, Canada = 1) gender (females = 0, males =1), age (measured in continuous years), academic standing (1 = freshman to 4 = senior), and importance of religion in a person’s life (1 = not at all to  4 = a great deal) using Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regression.

 

** p < .01

#   indicates that the dichotomous variable measuring the nation of the respondent had a statistically significant effect in the OLS regression equation at p < .05, even after controlling for the shared effects of gender, age, and academic standing, and importance of religion in the respondent’s life.

Table 2 also reports Independent t-test results that were used to determine whether the two groups of students significantly differed from one another on the 16 items for supporting or opposing capital punishment.[6] On each of the 16 reasons, there was a statistically significant difference between the two groups of students. Canadian respondents were significantly less likely to support the death penalty for the reasons of retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, or the instrumental perspective (i.e., law and order), and U.S. respondents were less likely to oppose capital punishment for the reasons of morality, the brutalization effect, or innocence. There was a large difference between the two groups of students for the instrumental perspective and innocence. U.S. students were much more likely to feel that capital punishment was necessary to ensure law and order, while Canadian respondents were much more likely to indicate that they opposed the death penalty because of the risk of executing an innocent person. The smallest difference between the two groups of respondents was with the view that showing mercy is more important than seeking revenge.

OLS regression was utilized to determine whether the two groups of students significantly differed after taking into account the effects of the independent variables. Each of the 16 measures presented in Table 2 were entered into OLS regression equations as the dependent variables, and gender, age, academic standing, importance of religion, and nation of the respondent were entered as the independent variables. The results for the impact of the dichotomous measure of nation (Canada or the U.S.) are reported in the last column of Table 2 (i.e., the Regr. column). On 15 of the 16 statements, nation of the respondent had a statistically significant impact. Moreover, on 13 of the 15 significant measures, the nation of the respondent had the largest impact; however, for the instrumental measure (i.e., the death penalty is necessary for law and order) and the incapacitation measure (i.e., the death penalty is the ultimate incapacitation), gender had a larger impact than nation, although both gender and nation had significant impacts. Finally, there was no difference between the two groups in the multi-variate analysis for the morality measure that it is more important to show mercy than it is to seek revenge.

Lastly, OLS regression was used to determine the degree of impact the major reasons had on the level of support for capital punishment. The four individual items provided in Table 2 measuring retribution, deterrence, and morality were each summed together to form an index for the particular rationale which had Cronbach’s alpha coefficients of .87, .88, and .75, respectively. Incapacitation, the instrumental perspective, the brutalization effect, and the chance of executing an innocent person were each measured using a single item. The OLS results for the entire group, the Canadian respondents, and the U.S. respondents are presented in Table 3. The dependent variable was the seven-point scale measuring degree of death penalty support. Gender, age, academic level, importance of religion in a person’s life, nation of the respondent, and the major reasons for supporting or opposing the death penalty were the independent variables.

The R-Squared for the OLS regression equation using all the respondents was .78, which means 78% of the observed variance in the death penalty support variable was explained by the independent variables. Gender, age, academic level, and importance of religion all had insignificant effects the level of support for capital punishment. Retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and the instrumental perceptive all had a significant positive relationship with the level of support for capital punishment. Morality, the brutalization effect, and the issue of innocence all had significant negative associations with the level of support for capital punishment.

 

Table 3

OLS Regression Results on the Impact of Major Reasons to Support/Oppose the Death Penalty

 

Variable

 

Entire Group

(N = 893)

 

Canadian Group

(n = 409)

 

U.S. Group

(n = 484)

 

 

 

b

 

B

 

b

 

B

 

b

 

B

 

Gender

 

-.10

 

-.02

 

.01

 

.01

 

-.15

 

-.04

 

Age

 

-.01

 

-.03

 

-.06

 

-.06

 

-.01

 

-.02

 

Academic Level

 

.05

 

.03

 

.15

 

.06

 

.03

 

.02

 

Importance of Religion

 

-.03

 

-.02

 

.01

 

.01

 

-.09

 

-.04

 

Retribution

 

.19

 

.38**

 

.23

 

.44**

 

.16

 

.34**

 

Deterrence

 

.04

 

.08**

 

.04

 

.08*

 

.04

 

.08*

 

Incapacitation

 

.09

 

.05**

 

.12

 

.08*

 

.02

 

.01

 

Instrumental

 

.19

 

.11**

 

.21

 

.12**

 

.17

 

.10**

 

Morality

 

-.08

 

-.14**

 

-.09

 

-.14**

 

-.08

 

-.14**

 

Brutalization

 

-.17

 

-.09**

 

-.16

 

-.09**

 

-.17

 

-.09**

 

Innocence

 

-.30

 

-.20**

 

-.25

 

-.16**

 

-.41

 

-.28**

 

Nation

 

-.28

 

-.07**

 

-

 

-

 

-

 

-

 

R-Squared

 

 

 

.78**

 

 

 

.71**

 

 

 

.79**

Note. b represents the unstandardized regression coefficient and B represents the standardized regression coefficient.

* p < .05; ** p  < .01

Even after controlling for personal characteristics and reasons to support or oppose, Canadian respondents were still significantly lower in their death penalty support than were U.S. respondents. Furthermore, it is possible to determine the magnitude of a variable’s impact by examining the standardized regression coefficient. Retribution, by far, had the greatest impact on level of death penalty support with almost twice the impact of innocence, which had the second largest. Morality had the third largest effect, and incapacitation had the least.

OLS regression equations were also estimated for Canadian and U.S. respondents individually. The results are also presented in Table 3. The independent variables explained slightly more variance for the U.S. model than for the Canadian model (i.e., R-Squared of .79 versus .71). In both the equations, gender, age, academic level and importance of religion had insignificant effects. Retribution, deterrence, the instrumental perspective, morality, the brutalization effect, and innocence had significant effects in both equations. The incapacitation variable had a significant effect on the level of death penalty for Canadian respondents but not for U.S. respondents. In both equations, retribution had the greatest impact and innocence had the second largest effect. Retribution had a greater impact in the equation for Canadian students than it did in the equation for U.S. students. Conversely, innocence had a greater impact for U.S. respondents than it did for Canadian respondents. Finally, morality, the instrumental perspective, the brutalization effect, and deterrence had similar sized effects in both equations.

 

Discussion and Conclusion

Three primary conclusions can be drawn from the results. First, there was a significant difference between Canadian and U.S. respondents in their level of support for capital punishment. Second, there was a significant difference between Canadian and U.S. respondents in their views on the reasons to support or oppose capital punishment. Third, in general, the same predictors for level of support for the death penalty were found between the two groups.

There was a huge difference between Canadian and U.S. respondents in their level of support for capital punishment. Approximately 64% of the U.S. students supported the death penalty to some degree, only 27% of the Canadian students did. The difference between the two groups was found even in multi-variate analysis. The significant difference can be attributed in part to the cultural differences between the U.S. and Canada. While there are many similarities between the two cultures, there are many significant differences as well. Canadian culture tends to be more egalitarian than the U.S. (Ouimet, 2002). Another reason for the difference in level of death penalty support between Canadian and U.S. respondents is because the former nation has abolished capital punishment, while the latter has not. Death penalty support may be lower in Canada because there is less public discussion of the death penalty by politicians and is no longer in the news. According to Van Koppen, Hessing, and De Poot (2002), “Politicians can play a major role in leading public attitudes on the death penalty” (p. 89). In the U.S., politicians are expected to be tough on crime, which in many cases translates into supporting capital punishment. Conversely, capital punishment was effectively abolished over four decades ago in Canada. If the death penalty were abolished, support for it would be expected to drop over time (Zimring and Hawkins, 1986), and this appears that this may be the case in Canada.

The postulation that the longer a nation does not have capital punishment, the lower the support for it could also explain the low level of support for the death penalty among the respondents in this study than has been found in past polls of Canadian residents. The level of support found among the U.S. students is similar to the level found in the general U.S. population (The Death Penalty Information Center, 2005). This was not the case with Canadian respondents, only 27% support to some degree capital punishment, even though in a 1995 poll of Canadian residents found that 70% favored the return of capital punishment and a 2001 poll found that 52% supported the death penalty (Angus Reid Associate, 1995, as cited in Roberts and Stalans, 1997; Roberts, 2001). It is interesting to note that over time death penalty support has dropped in Canada. The low support for the death penalty found in this study could be due to a continued drop in capital punishment support among Canadian individuals or possibly because the students in this study do not represent the views of typical Canadian residents. It should be noted that the last execution in Canadian history in 1962, more than two decades before the average respondent was born.

Finally, as previously indicated, Canada has a much lower murder rate than the U.S. (1.5 compared to 5.5 per 100,000). A lower murder rate may have translated into a lower desire for capital punishment among the Canadian students as compared to the U.S. students.

There were significant differences between Canadian and U.S. students in their views of the reasons to support or oppose capital punishment. It is no surprise that most Canadian students agreed with opposition reasons and disagreed with supportive reasons. The U.S. students may have assumed that because the U.S. has the death penalty, it must be an acceptable punishment and sought out reasons to support it. Likewise, the Canadian students may have assumed that because Canada has abolished capital punishment, it must be wrong and sought out reasons to oppose it (Van Koppen et al., 2002). Finally, among both groups, many people agreed with different reasons, such as retribution and innocence. This study upholds the contention that support for the death penalty is complex. Rarely do people hold a single reason for supporting or opposing complex social issues (Zaller, 1992).

Despite differences, there were also similarities between both groups of respondents. Multi-variate analysis indicated which reasons best explained varying levels of death penalty support. Retribution was the best predictor for both Canadian and U.S. respondents. Retribution is a common reason provided for punishing offenders by sending them to prison, and it appears to continue to be a reason for those who wish to impose the death penalty. The desire for vengeance seems to know no borders. Interestingly, retribution had a greater impact among Canadian students than it did among U.S. students. It may be that those who want to reestablish the death penalty in Canada are driven by desire for revenge. The second best predictor for both groups was innocence. The fear of executing an innocent person is a powerful force, which probably causes many individuals to oppose capital punishment. Interestingly, innocence had a greater effect among U.S. respondents than it did among Canadian students. This may have been because the execution of an innocent person is a real threat in the U.S., as evidenced by reports in the media whenever a new individual is exonerated and released from death row.

Finally, for both groups, morality, the instrumental perspective (i.e., law and order), the brutalization effect, and deterrence were significant predictors for both groups. The only difference was that incapacitation was a significant predictor among Canadian students but not among U.S. students. The media in Canada could be driving this finding. Incapacitation has become a “hot topic” in Canadian news over the past two years with a number of deaths of children at the hands of pedophiles, and the release of one of Canada’s most notorious serial killers, Karla Homolka.

Additional research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn. It would be interesting to learn whether the low level of death penalty support found among the Canadian respondents in this study is found in other studies. This would add credibility to the argument that the abolition of capital punishment decreases support for it over time. In addition, more research is needed to determine whether the issue of executing an innocent person is a significant factor in helping shape U.S. residents’ views on the death penalty. Future studies should also include multiple item measures for incapacitation, instrumental perspective, brutalization, and innocence. Measures of other reasons to support or oppose capital punishment could also be included.

Finally, there are sharp regional differences in the U.S. in death penalty support and the number of executions (Durham et al., 1996). For example, three states have accounted for over half of all executions in the U.S. since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976; Texas, alone, has accounted for 35% of these executions. Twelve states have no death penalty statutes, and several other death penalty states have not executed anyone since reinstatement (The Death Penalty Information Center, 2005). There may also be regional differences in capital punishment support in Canada. Future research should attempt to detect and explain the regional differences.

 

Acknowledgment

The authors thank Janet Lambert for editing and proofreading the paper. The authors also thank Dr. K. Jaishankar, Managing Editor of IJCJS, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions.

 

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End Notes

[1] Associate Professor, Department of Criminal Justice, HH 3000, Mail Stop # 119, The University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio 43606, 419-530-2231 (office), 419-530-2153 (fax), Eric.Lambert@Utoledo.edu

[2] Assistant Professor, Department of Criminal Justice, HH 3008, Mail Stop 119, The University of  Toledo, Toledo, Ohio 43606, 419-530-5351 (office), 419-530-2153 (fax), dbaker@utnet.utoledo.edu

[3] Assistant Professor, Department of Criminal Justice, College of Health and Human Services, HH 3014, Mail Stop # 119, The University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio 43606, 419-530-4341 (office), 419-530-2153 (fax), Ktucker4@utnet.utoledo.edu

[4] There is a provision in the Canadian Criminal Code which allows murderers sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for 25 years to have their sentences reviewed by a jury after serving 15 years. If the jury feels it is appropriate, the murderer may seek parole after serving 15 rather than 25 years (Roberts and Stalans, 1997).

[5] The lex talionis is a law of equal and direct retribution: in the words of the Hebrew scriptures, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an arm for an arm, a life for a life."

[6] In addition to the Independent t-test, two nonparametric tests were used. Specifically, the Kruskal-Wallis H test and the Mann-Whitney U test were utilized. Similar results to the t-test were observed.


INternational Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences

Vol 1 Issue 2 July 2006

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