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October 2, 2013

"The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All"

TwopercentcoverThe title of this post is the title of this new report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center.  Here are excerpts from this report's executive summary:

Contrary to the assumption that the death penalty is widely practiced across the country, it is actually the domain of a small percentage of U.S. counties in a handful of states.  The burdens created by this narrow but aggressive use, however, are shifted to the majority of counties that almost never use it.

The disparate and highly clustered use of the death penalty raises serious questions of unequal and arbitrary application of the law.  It also forces the jurisdictions that have resisted the death penalty for decades to pay for a costly legal process that is often marred with injustice.

Only 2% of the counties in the U.S. have been responsible for the majority of cases leading to executions since 1976. Likewise, only 2% of the counties are responsible for the majority of today’s death row population and recent death sentences.  To put it another way, all of the state executions since the death penalty was reinstated stem from cases in just 15% of the counties in the U.S.  All of the 3,125 inmates on death row as of January 1, 2013 came from just 20% of the counties.

Each decision to seek the death penalty is made by a single county district attorney, who is answerable only to the voters of that county.  Nevertheless, all state taxpayers will have to bear the substantial financial costs of each death penalty case, and some of the costs will even be borne on a national level.

The counties that use the death penalty the most have some of the highest reversal rates and many have been responsible for errors of egregious injustice.  As their cases are reversed, more money will be spent on retrials and further appeals....

Some states have recently chosen to opt out of this process altogether, greatly limiting their obligations for its high costs and disrepute.  As the death penalty is seen more as the insistent campaign of a few at tremendous cost to the many, more states may follow that course.

October 2, 2013 at 10:12 PM | Permalink


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What a brain-dead piece of "research". Of course most cases will happen in the small number of highly populous urban counties. And with the small overall number, clumping would be expected anyway. The author seems to have little of no understanding of basic demographics or statistics.

This is worse than cargo cult science. It's cargo cult sociology!

The reason to oppose the death penalty is not because it is applied unevenly, or that it's expensive, or that there are mistakes. The reason to oppose it is that the death penalty damages the authority of our justice system, decreases respect for the law, and excites blood-lust among the lesser-educated classes.

Posted by: Boffin | Oct 2, 2013 11:12:21 PM

This is claptrap. There are 254 counties in Texas. Many have populations under 50,000.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 2, 2013 11:16:08 PM

How on earth does the Death Penalty Information Center get away with a neutral-sounding name like that when what it actually is is a zealous abolitionist lobby?

"The reason to oppose it is that the death penalty damages the authority of our justice system..."

Actually, and more than other punishments, it correctly assumes and implements the authority of our justice system.

"...decreases respect for the law..."

Except that half the public believes it should be used more frequently, and thus lose would LOSE respect if its use falls off.

"...and excites blood-lust among the lesser-educated classes.

College educated people support the death penalty by a whooping 57-40, a vastly greater margin than, for example, any candidate has had in winning the Presidency since Reagan almost 30 years ago.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 3, 2013 9:01:41 AM

A perfect example of using statistics to mislead.

In the denominator, you include counties from states without the death penalty. Because counties in those states can't impose the death sentence, you can't tell what percent of those counties would if they could.

As noted by the other posts, it treats all counties as if they are exactly the same, thereby comparing apples to oranges. In my states, most counties have less than 50,000 people and average less than one murder per year. It is not suprising, that most of the smallest counties have not produced a death sentence or execution, and would be shocking if they did.

On the other hand, our largest counties (represent about 2.5% of the number of the counties in my state), have populations in excess of 200,000, represent 40% of the state's population, the majority of the murders in the state, and 50% of the executions over the past 25 years. Add one more county to get one more executions, and you can say that "most" of the executions come from 3% of the counties.

A more significant and meaningful statistic would be, in those states that allow the jury to impose the death sentence, what percentage of the population lives in counties in which a jury have returned a death sentence over the past twenty years. DPIC will never publish that statistic because, in most states with a death penalty, it would be well over 50%.

Posted by: tmm | Oct 3, 2013 10:27:39 AM

The OP talks about where "the majority of cases leading to executions since 1976" come from while tmm says it is more "meaningful" where a jury have returned "a" death sentence. That seems curious. In statistics, where something occurs a lot matters more than outliers where "a" few are involved, yes?

The overall statement of the OP is vaid -- there is a "death penalty belt" in this country and a handful of states provide "the majority" -- we can say "vast" majority -- of death cases.

A few cases here and there shows that the remainder wants the option open for special cases, but they are not going to be like the handful of states (and even there, a few counties, not only based on population -- just as NY has a sizable population but had fewer death sentences when they had the option available -- putting aside the federal cases here) that do.

This is not a novel statement -- there are certain areas of the country and parts of those areas where most of the death penalty cases arise. This reflects our system where local prosecutors/judges/juries have discretion to reflect the will of the local communities. This isn't itself a bad thing even if some might not support what they do in certain cases.

Anyway, I read "Wild Justice" referenced on this blog and it was a good book.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 3, 2013 11:02:52 AM

Joe, in this case, DPIC is using most out of the total pool of death sentences returned. Most can mean anything about 50%+1. So if you are merely trying to get to 50%, you can eliminate a substantial number of executions and death sentences.

My bigger point is that while there is a death penalty core, that core is really a handful of the largest counties in the country -- Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Los Angeles. If you can portray it as really a tiny segment because a county in West Texas with 2,000 people scattered over 10,000 square miles has never returned a death sentences and thus most of Texas's death sentences come from 4 counties out of how ever many Texas has, then you are distorting the result by focusing on geography rather than population or homicides.

Posted by: tmm | Oct 3, 2013 11:48:15 AM

"In statistics, where something occurs a lot matters more than outliers where 'a' few are involved, yes?"

Typical sophistry and obfuscation. Dieter's 2% "statistic" is meaningless. and Joe essays a non-defense defense.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 3, 2013 9:51:47 PM

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