Public opinion supportive of the abolition
The 31st Session of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice of the ODC took place in Vienna from the 16th to the 20th of May 2022. At this occasion, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations organized a side-event: “Abolishing the Death Penalty: Public Opinion and the Road to Abolition”, which was held online on the 20th of May.
The event aimed to discuss the influence of public opinion on the abolition of the death penalty. Teppei Ono, Secretary General for the Center for Prisoners’ Rights (CPR), animated the webinar, and Mai Sato, Associate Professor at Monash University, Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), and Raphael Chenuil Hazan, General manager of Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort (ECPM), were invited to share their expertise.
Biased government surveys in Japan
Mai Sato explained how the public opinion is measured and used by the Japanese government, and how the public opinion could and should be measured. Thanks to a comparative survey she led on public opinion regarding the death penalty in Japan she found out that the government surveys were biased. Whilst the Japanese government 2019 survey shows that 81% of the population is in favor the death penalty when asked if the if the death penalty is ”unavoidable in some cases” for example, only 38% of the population is in favor of the death penalty if the question asked is “Do you agree with the death penalty if the life imprisonment without parole is introduced in Japan?”.
Public opinion in the United States
Robert Dunham made the same observation as Mai Sato regarding public opinion polls. According to him, when Americans are asked slightly different questions, more concrete, 60% now say that they would choose life imprisonment without parole over the death penalty. But if we simply ask if they are in favor of the death penalty, 54% answer favorably. Once again, the comparative polls showed that the formulation of the question, and the contextualization, are strongly influencing the results.
The French abolition regardless of public opinion
Raphael Chenuil Hazan gave the example of the abolition of the death penalty in France in 1981, regardless of the public opinion supporting the death penalty. He read a part of a presidential campaign speech given by the newly elected President, François Mitterrand, on March 16th, 1981. He claimed the necessity of the abolition in France. The public opinion was until then seen as an argument to maintain the death penalty. 64% of the French were in favor of the death penalty and only 28% were against it, yet the death penalty was abolished on October 9, 1981.