Why the death penalty is at historic low in the US
By and large, Americans still support the death penalty. But concerns about the fairness of its application, and even its costs, are playing a role in the steep drop in executions and convictions.
Concerns about the racial fairness, costs, and growing numbers of life-without-parole sentences have all played a role in a steep decline in the number of executions and death penalty sentences in the US this year, legal analysts say.Skip to next paragraph
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A report released Thursday by the Death Penalty Information Center, an organization dedicated to pointing out problems with capital punishment in America, shows that the number of death penalty sentences dropped below 100 – to 78 – for the first time since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
The number of actual executions also dropped from 46 last year to 43 this year, with states in the South accounting for 87 percent of those sanctions. The total was down steeply from a high of 98 in 1999.
US polls also show declining support for the idea of capital punishment, with about 61 percent now in favor – the lowest percentage since the early 1970s. Recent executions – including that of Troy Davis, convicted of murdering a police officer and executed in Georgia this summer – have raised new questions the sanction's ultimate fairness, including about the difficulty of proving innocence in a capital case.
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Polls showing the growth of support for life-without-parole sentences over the death penalty hint at changing attitudes that have likely had an effect on other high-profile cases. That includes the decision by Pennsylvania prosecutors this month to decline a new capital sentencing hearing for Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer. Instead of facing execution, Mr. Abu-Jamal, who has steadfastly declared his innocence, will remain in prison for the rest of his life.
California meanwhile, is in the middle of a debate over abolishing the practice in part because of its cost. The state, which is expected to hold a referendum on the issue next year, has spent $4 billion on its death row system and has executed 13 people since 1978.
In California, housing death row inmates is almost twice as expensive as housing someone in the general prison population, and trial costs can run up to $1 million per case, up to 20 times the cost of a murder trial where prosecutors are not asking for the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
A declining murder rate and growing numbers of life-without-parole sentences for the most violent criminals may be playing more of a role in the death penalty decreases than changes in public sentiment, prosecutors and victims' advocates say.