Has capital punishment become decadent in the United States of America?

The Death Penalty Information Centre (DPIC) has just published a report on the death penalties passed and executed in 2017 which states that it is the lowest since 1973, although it means a small rise compared with 2016 which was the lowest figure in the same period[1]. In the same vein, capital punishment sentences passed have gone from 279 in 1999 to 39 in 2017 (with the previous year recording a historic minimum with 31). Furthermore, these sentences are geographically very concentrated. There are three counties (Riverside, CA, Clark, NV, and Maricopa, AZ) which are the focus of 31% of the sentences passed this year. These counties do not exactly appear to be examples in terms of criminal justice (Riverside police force is ninth in the ranking of civilians killed by the police). On the other hand, the county of Harris, in Texas, a traditionally prolific capital punisher, has not passed any such sentence this year, which is regarded to be a change in trend. Executions are also very concentrated, more specifically 75% of those carried out this year took place in four states: Texas, Arkansas, Florida and Alabama.

All of this coincides with the rates of support for capital punishment in recent times, which is still estimated to be 55% of the population (it had reached 80% in the mid-nineties). In 2010 a survey by Like Research Partners showed that 61% of those interviewed preferred sentences other than death for crimes like homicide and murder.

One of the reasons for the supposed disrepute of this measure may have been signs of faulty evidence, excessively aggressive prosecutors and relatively unprofessional defences which led to, in a non-isolated way, the sentencing of people who had not been proven to have committed the actions they were accused of. Indeed, 160 people have been freed while they were on death row since 1973 because their innocence was proven.

Another factor is the evident racial bias in the application and execution of the death sentence. While blacks and Hispanics constitute 15 and 7%, respectively, of those sentenced to death, a higher percentage are actually executed (34.3 and 8.3% respectively). In 75% of cases which actually conclude with an execution the victim was a white person (although these only represent half the victims of homicide and murder). In coherence with this data the immense majority of these executions (1,195) took place in southern states. Those executed in the afore-mentioned Riverside county between 2010 and 2015 were black in 76% of cases.

All the same, in spite of this downward trend, 31 states still apply the penalty[2]. In total since 1976 1,465 people have been executed[3] and on 1st July 2017, 2,817 people were still on death row awaiting execution.

 [1] Vid. https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/2017YrEnd.pdf

[2] Vid. https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/states-and-without-death-penalty

[3] Vid. https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf


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