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December 21, 2016

DPIC releases year-end report highlighting "historic declines" in use of the death penalty in 2016

NewDeathSentences1973-2016This press release from the Death Penalty Information Center, titled "Death Sentences, Executions Drop to Historic Lows in 2016," provides a summary of the DPIC's 2016 year-end report on the administration of the death penalty in the United States. Here is the text of the press release:

Death sentences, executions, and public support for capital punishment all continued historic declines in 2016.  American juries imposed the fewest death sentences in the modern era of U.S. capital punishment, since the Supreme Court declared existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972.  The expected 30 new death sentences in 2016 represent a 39 percent decline from last year’s already 40-year low of 49. The 20 executions this year marked the lowest number in a quarter century, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). National public opinion polls also showed support for capital punishment at a 40-year low.

“America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment.  While there may be fits and starts and occasional steps backward, the long-term trend remains clear,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report.  “Whether it’s concerns about innocence, costs, and discrimination, availability of life without parole as a safe alternative, or the questionable way in which states are attempting to carry out executions, the public grows increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty each year.”

For the first time in more than 40 years, no state imposed ten or more death sentences. Only five states imposed more than one death sentence. California imposed the most (9) followed by Ohio (4), Texas (4), Alabama (3) and Florida (2).  Death sentences continued to be clustered in two percent of counties nationwide, with Los Angeles County imposing four death sentences, the most of any county. But death sentences were down 39 percent, even in those two-percent counties.

This year’s 20 executions marked a decline of more than 25 percent since last year, when there were 28 executions.  Only five states conducted executions this year, the fewest number of states to do so since 1983.  Two states -- Georgia, which had the most executions (9), and Texas, which had the second highest number (7) -- accounted for 80 percent of all executions in the U.S.  Although Georgia carried out more executions than at any other time since the 1950s, juries in that state have not imposed any new death sentences in the past two years.

State and federal courts continued to strike down outlier practices that increased the likelihood a death sentence would be imposed.  The United States Supreme Court struck down practices in Florida, Arizona, and Oklahoma that had disproportionately contributed to the number of death sentences imposed in those states.  And state courts in Florida and Delaware ruled that portions of their statutes that permitted the death penalty based upon a non-unanimous jury vote on sentencing were unconstitutional.

America’s deep divisions about capital punishment were reflected in voters’ action at the ballot box this year. Voters in California and Nebraska voted to retain the death penalty and Oklahoma voters approved a constitutional amendment regarding capital punishment.  At the same time, prosecutors in four of the 16 counties that impose the most death sentences in the U.S. were defeated by candidates who expressed personal opposition to the death penalty or pledged to reform their county’s death penalty practices.  In Kansas, pro-death penalty groups spent more than $1 million to defeat four state supreme court justices who had voted to overturn several death sentences, but voters retained all four justices.

DPIC’s review of the 20 people executed in 2016 indicated that at least 60 percent of them showed significant evidence of mental illness, brain impairment, and/or low intellectual functioning.  This suggests that, in spite of the constitutional requirement that the death penalty be reserved for the “worst of the worst” offenders, states continued to execute prisoners whose mental illness or intellectual disabilities are similar to impairments the Court has said should make a person ineligible for the death penalty.

I have reprinted above the DPIC graphic emphasizing the continued decline in the number of death sentences imposed each year because, as I have said before, I view that metric as the most significant and consequential in any serious discussion of the present status and future prospects of capital punishment throughout the US.

December 21, 2016 at 12:14 PM | Permalink

Comments

The report notes that "“Whether it’s concerns about innocence, costs, and discrimination, availability of life without parole as a safe alternative, or the questionable way in which states are attempting to carry out executions, the public grows increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty each year.”

I also think a contributing cause of the decline is prosecutorial misconduct, of which the the public (Jurors) are becoming increasingly aware. Such misconduct (e.g, hiding Brady material) is "epidemic" according to Alex Kozinski, the former Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Dec 21, 2016 1:19:53 PM

"deep divisions"? Only among the chattering classes and the courts with the ever changing "mother, may I?" approach.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 21, 2016 1:48:20 PM

Federalist, I think the latest Pew poll supports the existence of "deep divisions" regarding the death penalty.

Pew Research Center

SEPTEMBER 29, 2016
Support for death penalty lowest in more than four decades
BY BAXTER OLIPHANT5 COMMENTS

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear the first of two death penalty cases in this year’s term, the share of Americans who support the death penalty for people convicted of murder is now at its lowest point in more than four decades.

Only about half of Americans (49%) now favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 42% oppose it. Support has dropped 7 percentage points since March 2015, from 56%. Public support for capital punishment peaked in the mid-1990s, when eight-in-ten Americans (80% in 1994) favored the death penalty and fewer than two-in-ten were opposed (16%). Opposition to the death penalty is now the highest it has been since 1972.


Though support for the death penalty has declined across most groups, a Pew Research Center survey conducted Aug. 23-Sept. 2 among 1,201 adults finds that most Republicans continue to largely favor its use in cases of murder, while most Democrats oppose it. By more than two-to-one, more Republicans (72%) than Democrats (34%) currently favor the death penalty.

Two decades ago, when majorities in both parties favored the death penalty, the partisan gap was only 16 percentage points (87% of Republicans vs. 71% of Democrats).

And, for the first time in decades, independents are as likely to oppose the use of the death penalty (45%) as they are to favor it (44%). The share of independents who support capital punishment has fallen 13 points since last year (from 57%).

This shift in views among independents is particularly pronounced among those who lean toward the Democratic Party (a 10-point decrease in support) and those who do not lean to either party (down 16 points). Support for the death penalty among independents who lean toward the GOP is little changed from March 2015 (73% now, 70% then).

Even as support for the death penalty has declined across nearly all groups, demographic differences remain: Men are more likely to back the use of the death penalty than women, white Americans are more supportive than blacks and Hispanics, and attitudes on the issue also differ by age, education and along religious lines.

More than half of men (55%) say they are in favor of the death penalty and 38% are opposed. Women’s views are more divided: 43% favor the death penalty, 45% oppose it.

A 57% majority of whites favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder (down from 63% last year). But blacks and Hispanics support it at much lower rates: Just 29% of blacks and 36% of Hispanics favor capital punishment.

There are only modest difference by age and education in support for the death penalty, with 18- to 29-year-olds somewhat less likely to support it (42% favor) than those in older age groups (51% of those 30 and older). Those without a college degree are more likely than those with at least a college degree to favor the use of the death penalty in cases of murder (51% vs. 43%).

White evangelical Protestants continue to back the use of the death penalty by a wide margin (69% favor, 26% oppose). White mainline Protestants also are substantially more likely to support (60%) than oppose (31%) the death penalty. But among Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated, opinion is more divided: 43% of Catholics favor capital punishment, while 46% oppose it. And while 50% of those who are religiously unaffiliated oppose the death penalty, 40% support it.

A more detailed study last year of attitudes toward capital punishment found that 63% of the public thought the death penalty was morally justified, but majorities said there was some risk of an innocent person being put to death (71%) and that the death penalty does not deter serious crime (61%).


Posted by: anon | Dec 21, 2016 3:28:55 PM

Not really anon---most people opposed to the death penalty really don't care that much. However, the media, a significant number of judges, academics and hard-core leftists are seriously opposed to it--thus the "controversy" is more inside baseball than anything else.

I recall an op-ed a few years back when South Dakota was going to give some murderer the big jab that entreated South Dakotans to "reflect" on the enormity of it all. Yeah, because people with lives to live and families to support etc. should spend their precious time about some scum who committed a horrible murder. Out. Of. Touch.


What is amazing to me--the above-mentioned groups tend to get more worked up about zapping a capital murderer (oh, the humanity) than they do about sucking the brains out of a perfectly viable and healthy 8-month old fetus.

I think the death penalty is dying. Why? Because of the opposition of the judiciary to the practice. This is why I think it's a fight worth having---the Constitution allows the death penalty, which means that the society, as part of its right to govern itself, has the right to impose it. The "death by 1000 cuts" approach of the courts is fundamentally anti-democratic (and anti-freedom). When federal judges, with zero basis, get to call execution procedures a high school science experiment, that evinces a fundamental disdain for our right to govern ourselves. It also calls into question the fitness of those judges for judicial office. That the bar utters not a peep is telling.

People like you, anon, will trade our right to govern ourselves for an outcome you like, and for what, the benefit of a few capital murderers? Thus, and this is not an insult, just the truth, you are un-American.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 21, 2016 4:31:26 PM

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