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The disappearing death penalty

Legal reform

The use of capital punishment dropped again in 2016, a positive trend.

A guard stands behind bars during a 2015 media tour of death row at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. America's most populous state has not carried out an execution of a prisoner in more than a decade.
Stephen Lam/Reuters/File
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  • By the Monitor’s Editorial Board

Sometimes a modicum of progress sneaks up on society and, when spotted, provides welcome news.

Just before Christmas, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reported that in 2016 both the death sentences by courts and death-row executions across the United States continued to decline.

The 30 new death sentences handed down this year were a big drop from 49 the previous year, and were the lowest number since the US Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, the nonprofit group said.

In 2016, 20 people were put to death in the US as punishment for crimes. That was a significant drop from 28 people in 2015. This year about 30 people joined those waiting on death row in US prisons, the fewest number in more that four decades. That number is far below the 315 sentenced to death in 1995, for example. The total number of people on death row awaiting execution also fell modestly in 2016, from 2,984 to 2,905.

“America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment,” says Robert Dunham, DPIC’s executive director and the author of the report. “While there may be fits and starts and occasional steps backward, the long-term trend remains clear.”

These clear trend lines shouldn’t be obscured by fog formed from initiatives in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma last fall, in which voters expressed approval of capital punishment in their states.

While many, perhaps most, Americans still back the death penalty in principle, more and more seem to be troubled by the way it is carried out. Executions using intravenous drugs have been botched causing undue pain, and finding an adequate supply of drugs that don’t prolong suffering has proved elusive.

The possibility of wrongful executions continues to disturb Americans: Since 1973, 156 prisoners sitting on death row have been freed, some through DNA evidence unavailable at their original trial. These inmates have either been acquitted of all charges against them, had the charges dropped by prosecutors, or were granted a pardon based on evidence that showed their innocence.

States have also moved to exempt minors and those judged mentally incompetent from being eligible for execution, reducing the pool of possible subjects.

Concerns about racial disparities trouble many as well. Since 1976, 34.5 percent of all those executed for capital offenses were African-Americans. Today 41.8 percent of those who await execution on death row are African-Americans. Yet African-Americans make up only 13.2 percent of the total US population.

But whether capital punishment proves to be expensive or difficult to administer in a fair or timely fashion is not the principal reason to welcome its end. As a 2010 Monitor editorial reasoned, a moral argument must be heard too. “A government’s job is to preserve life, not compound a terrible wrong by taking another life,” it said. “A death sentence cuts off the opportunity for redemption and leans on an outdated concept of justice based on revenge.”

Most governments in the world have accepted this argument and have stopped the use of capital punishment. In the US that day may not happen for some time to come, but making the death penalty more and more rare is a step in the right direction.

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