Death Penalty Declining: What's Next?

Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights, a champion in the defense of capital cases and a personal hero of mine, discusses what's next for the death penalty in the video above and in a blogpost today at MoBlogic.tv .

Although public opinion polls continue to show support for the death penalty, imposition of the death penalty is down by more than 50% over 10 years. In the late 1990s, around 280-300 people were being sentenced to death a year. In the last 5 years, it’s been around 125 to 150 a year. No one has noticed this. But it is significant that a country this large with as many homicides as we have is sentencing so few people to death each year.


A lot of prosecutors are no longer seeking it or are seeking it very infrequently. And juries are more reluctant to impose it. Both prosecutors and juries have the alternative of life imprisonment without parole, which many states did not have until fairly recently.


14 states do not have the death penalty. Of the 36 that have it, 12 have 10 or less people on death row (7 have 5 or less – that includes New Hampshire which has none - it has not sentenced anyone to death since 1976). Six of those 36 states have had only 1 execution in the last 32 years and New Hampshire and Kansas have not had any. The death penalty is at best serving only a symbolic value in these states. South Dakota has had one execution in 66 years (it has another one scheduled). A punishment that is carried out only once in 66 years is not serving much of a purpose. But, as New Jersey found, the costs are enormous.

So, what may be next? Stephen says:

Ultimately, the death penalty could be limited to a few states, which may become increasingly isolated, just as it is limited to a few nations (China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US).Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I think it has a shot.

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    Its because (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by tamens on Thu May 15, 2008 at 03:31:23 PM EST
    passions are high about the primaries and its been a high information week for the process.

    As far as the death penalty goes, I am against it not because I'm nice, or a squishy liberal but because I can't think of anything worse than spending 23 hours per day alone without human interaction, books(?) or computers or stumulus of any kind for the rest of my life, which is my understanding of what high level offender housing is.  

    Therefore if I ever, in a cold and calculating (and probably inept) way offed my enemy, I could reasonably expect to go crazy after incarceration due to the aforementioned living conditions.

    In a more serious vein, I worry a bit that after the death penalty is completely abolished, the wonderful efforts of groups like The Innocence Project will lose the sense of urgency they need to look at wrongly convicted prisoners.

    NJ currently has suspended death penalty due to (none / 0) (#1)
    by jawbone on Thu May 15, 2008 at 11:10:06 AM EST
    state's supreme court ruling.

    I can't move out of NJ until I'm eligible for Medicare (have individual insurance which can't drop me for my cancer, but I won't get coverage if I move out of NJ), so it's a good thing our executions are on hiatus. I can't do very much about the death penalty, other than use my vote, but I will not reside in a state which executes prisoners.

    I can't do anything about living in a nation which does execute, but I pick my battles.

    Looking at the map in the site linked to, I don't have a whole lot of states to go to when I can move!

    This site has a map of death penalty status in the various states.

    NY hasn't used the death penalty (none / 0) (#3)
    by HelenK on Thu May 15, 2008 at 12:02:12 PM EST
    in the time I have lived here, I don't think.

    I always chuckle when they "Take the death penalty off the table" on Law & Order, since it takes place in NYC. Not much leverage in the real world.

    Using the threat of the DP as leverage, may be the only good use for it, and even then, there are other ways to get leverage over a criminal. Take Supermax off the table instead!


    WV did not reinstate the death penalty (none / 0) (#4)
    by liminal on Thu May 15, 2008 at 01:05:17 PM EST
    after the SCt allowed states to rewrite their death penalty legislation in 1976.  Come live with us!  Aside from Hawaii, we're the southernmost state to have followed that path.  

    That map is really, really interesting.  Thanks!


    It seems practicality (none / 0) (#2)
    by waldenpond on Thu May 15, 2008 at 11:56:17 AM EST
    has been an influence on the death penalty.  The death penalty, for me, is about revenge.  The actual execution takes so long to bring about, it seems to not provide an end to the ordeal for survivors of the victim of crime.  

    Is money an issue for the states seeking the death penalty?  I've heard that it is more expensive to execute than imprison somone for life.

    Practicality and money.  If that's what it takes to get there, I'll take it.

    Finally! (none / 0) (#5)
    by CDN Ctzn on Thu May 15, 2008 at 02:49:21 PM EST
    Maybe we're finally taking a major step and joining the rest of the civilized world in abolishing the Death Penalty! Better to be last than not to finish at all.

    How Sad! (none / 0) (#6)
    by CDN Ctzn on Thu May 15, 2008 at 03:12:00 PM EST
    Isn't it sad that when we talk about the Democratic Primaries that there is no shortage of people who want to comment? There are typically over 100 comments and Jeralyn has to eventually close the thread. But talk about something as important as Capital Punishment which goes a long way to defining a society, and we remain silent or don't care. Maybe it's not "bright and shiny" enough!

    Wow (none / 0) (#7)
    by CognitiveDissonance on Thu May 15, 2008 at 03:31:15 PM EST
    That map is pretty revealing. It looks to me like 90% of the executions are taking place in Dubya's state. My state has had 2 executions since 1977. They must have been a long time ago, because I don't remember any.