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December 15, 2011

DPIC year-end report indicates record-low number of US death sentences in 2011

The Death Penalty Information Center has just released its always notable year-end report for 2011, which can be accessed here.   The report carries this lengthy sub-title: "Illinois Abolition, Oregon Moratorium, and Troy Davis Execution Highlight Growing Concerns About Death Penalty; Executions Decline, Death Sentences Fall Well Below 100."   As the title to this post reveals, I think the most notable and important part of the 2011 story is the significant decline in death sentences as discussed in these passages from the report:

Death sentences continued their sharp decline since the 1990s. The number of new death sentences imposed in 2011 stands at 78, a decline of about 75% since 1996, when 315 inmates were sentenced to death.  This is the lowest number of death sentences in any year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Texas, which had 48 new death sentences in 1999, had only 8 this year.

California, the state with the largest death row, saw its death sentences drop by more than half this year -- 10 compared with 29 in 2010 (at least 2 other cases resulted in a jury verdict of death, but the judge has not imposed the sentence).  Many death penalty states, such as Maryland, South Carolina, Missouri and Indiana had no new death sentences in 2011.  The South and West combined for 87% of the death sentences, while the Midwest and Northeast had 12%.

The annual number of death sentences began declining after 1998.   In the 1990s there were close to 300 death sentences annually.  Since then, the number has dropped steadily, as the risks of executing the innocent grew more apparent and life without parole sentences became more common.  In every region of the country, death sentences have declined, which eventually will affect the number of executions.

Couple points of follow-up to detail some of my thoughts about this part of the story:

1.  Though innocence concerns and an LWOP alternative definitely help explain why the national death sentences have declined "about 75% since 1996," these factors do not alone strike me as a sufficient explanation for the big dip in death sentences from 2010 (with 112 death sentences nationwide) to 2011 (with only 78 death sentences).  As reflected in this effective Wall Street Journal article about this DPIC report, I suspect the high costs of prosecuting capital cases is prompting fewer prosecutors to seek death sentences and/or more prosecutors being willing to accept plea deals that take death off the table after a capital indictment.

2.  I seriously doubt that a decline of the national number of death sentences, unless and until the number gets into teens, "will affect the number of executions" anytime soon.  There are still well over 3000 murderers on death row right now, which means the US could have more than five decades of executions at the now-common pace of around 50 executions (and 10 death sentence reversals) each year even if there were zero new death sentences over the next half-century.  In addition, there are reasons to believe that many of the newer death sentences in recent years are "better" (i.e., less likely to be reversed) because prosecutors, jurors and judges are not seeking or imposing  death sentences in more questionable cases.  

3.  Speaking of execution rates and death sentences, the latest DPIC data highlight that the yearly execution numbers lately are principally a function of how quickly and how often Texas, Ohio, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and a few other serious death penalty states get murderers from death row to the execution chamber.  These five states alone already have nearly 1200 murderers condemned to die, which means these five states alone could sustain a pace of, say, thirty executions per year until the year 2050 without the imposition of any new executions over that time.  And if California with its more than 700 condemned murderers were ever to get seriously back into the execution business (which I very much doubt)....

December 15, 2011 at 09:41 AM | Permalink

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Comments

"Punishment is now unfashionable... because it creates moral distinctions among men,
which, to the democratic mind, are odious. We prefer a meaningless collective guilt
to a meaningful individual responsibility." ~Thomas Szasz

Posted by: Adamakis | Dec 15, 2011 2:12:00 PM

I think even Thomas Szasz would blush at the use of this facile quotation in the USA.

Posted by: peter | Dec 16, 2011 2:15:56 AM

How about this, then?

“We don't give our criminals much punishment, but we sure give 'em plenty of publicity.”
~Will Rogers

Posted by: Adamakis | Dec 16, 2011 2:21:13 PM

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