Roy Morgan has released a poll that has an absolute cracker of a history behind it – containing data that goes back all the way to 1947, close to when the polling organisation first started. It looks at the proportion of people that believe the death penalty should be applied for those found guilty of murder compared to the proportion that believe imprisonment should be the penalty.

The poll was taken using what looks like the same sample from the Security Threat poll we looked at the other day – a phone poll running a sample of 687 for an MoE that maxes out around the 3.7% mark.

The first question asked was:

Next about the penalty for murder. In your opinion, should the penalty for murder be death or imprisonment?


The current results came in at 64% supporting imprisonment and only 23% supporting the death penalty, a far cry from the 67/24 pro-death penalty split that was measured when the question was first asked back in 1947. It’s interesting how there appeared to be a bit of a resurgence in support for the death penalty over the late 80’s to mid 90’s, but which declined substantially over the last 10 years.

There was a follow up to this question which asked:

Where the penalty for murder is imprisonment — should it be for life — or should the judge fix the number of years, depending on the evidence?


Again, during the late 80’s through to the mid 90’s, public support for the harsher option – mandatory life sentences – had a surge of support before declining substantially after 1995

A further question was asked concerning the public’s view of Australians caught drug trafficking overseas, and where they were sentenced to death:

In Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Singapore and some other countries, the penalty for drug trafficking is death.  If an Australian is convicted of trafficking drugs in another country and sentenced to death, in your opinion, should the penalty be carried out or not?

This question initially referred to Malaysia only. Sri Lanka was added in 1989 and Indonesia and Singapore were added in 2005


Yet again we see the same pattern that we witnessed earlier.

If we track the harshest sentencing option provided for these three questions over the period of 1986 to 2009, a consistent trend becomes clear.


Australians are slowly but surely becoming less harsh in their views on the death penalty, mandatory life sentencing and the death penalty being applied to Australians found guilty of drug trafficking overseas. This runs counter to what we often see and here in the popular press over law and order issues. It would be interesting to see some polling on mandatory sentencing for crimes less than murder to find out whether the pattern of diminishing harshness we’re seeing here on these topics also holds across the full spectrum crime and sentencing.


Robert Corr adds an interesting two bobs worth using some Australian Institute of Criminology research, as well as some historical stats  that appeared in the Melbourne University Law Review.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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