Thursday, May 07, 2009

Does Anti-Death Penalty Public Information Campaigns Work?

While reading Barkan & Cohn's 2005 paper On reducing white support for the death penalty: A pessimistic appraisal (Criminology & Public Policy, 4, 39-44), I noticed the following assessment of the effectiveness of the public information campaigns by the anti-death penalty groups to bring awareness about the racism in our death penalty system. The authors believe that a two-pronged approach strategy of fighting the death penalty in both streets and courts based on the civil rights movement is more effective than public education campaigns used by anti-death penalty groups. Interestingly this two-pronged approach is being used by groups such as the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, which successfully organized that led to commutation of Kenneth Foster's death sentence in 2007.
This admittedly simple demonstration (simple because the change in
death penalty support may partially reflect other attitudinal differences
between prejudiced and nonprejudiced whites) brings us back to our
earlier points: (1) Racial prejudice is a strong and stable value; (2) white
support for the death penalty has a strong basis in racial prejudice; and (3)
white support is thus relatively intractable to intentional efforts by
informational campaigns to change it. As death penalty opponents, we
would like to believe, as Unnever and Cullen and other observers do, that
death penalty support can be reduced by public education campaigns
highlighting the inaccuracy and unfairness of its application, but we cannot
share their optimism. If white support during the 1990s dropped only 9.4%
despite the publicity over wrongful convictions in capital cases and a sharp
drop in the homicide rate and still remained at almost 70%, we do not
hold much hope that this opinion can be swayed through the public
education campaigns these observers advocate.

That leaves us to suggest an approach that is admittedly speculative.
This approach recalls the two-pronged strategy of the Southern civil rights
movement and some more recent movements, perhaps most notably the
environmental movement, in fighting the good cause in both the streets
and in the courts. The civil rights movement rehed on nonviolent protest
to propel segregation into the national consciousness and on litigation to
win important legal battles that perhaps were more winnable because of
attention and pressure from the protest (Branch, 1998; Scheingold, 1974).

An anti-death penalty movement that simultaneously used nonviolent
protest to bring the anti-democratic roots of death penalty support into
national consciousness and litigated against the death penalty's
constitutionality may likewise prove effective. If much white support for
the death penalty stems from racial prejudice and is thus anti-democratic,
then opinion polls exaggerate "legitimate" support for capital punishment.
Because it is inappropriate in a democracy for judicial and legislative
officials to allow racial prejudice to influence public policy, perhaps the
Supreme Court could be persuaded that "common standards of decency"
no longer justify the constitutionality of the death penalty. Although the
Court's current ideological composition makes this outcome unlikely, it
might still be open to a new line of argument that highlights the racially
prejudiced roots of white death penalty support, especially if attention was
given to these roots by a nonviolent protest movement.

Barkan, S. E., & Cohn, S. F. (2005). On reducing white support for the death penalty: A pessimistic appraisal. Criminology & Public Policy, 4, 39-44.

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