Very quietly, the death penalty in the United States is disappearing.
Over at The Atlantic Matt Ford had a great piece the other day detailing how the death penalty is quietly becoming a thing of the past. The reason is pretty simple. While capital punishment is still on the books for the Federal Government, 32 States, and the US Military it is actually being implemented in practice at an increasingly rare rate.
It’s long been clear that the lion’s share of executions are done by relatively small group of states largely located in the South, but these days death sentences themselves are being handed out by fewer and fewer counties, the localities where murder changes are actually prosecuted. As Ford puts it:
The effect is even more dramatic in the aggregate. Of the 3,144 counties or their equivalents in the United States, just 29 counties averaged more than one death sentence a year. “That 1 percent of counties accounts for roughly 44 percent of all death sentences” since 1976, [DePaul University law professor Robert] Smith observed. A 2013 report by the Death Penalty Information Center found that 59 counties—fewer than 2 percent of the total—handed down all U.S. death sentences in 2012.
According to Ford, much of this decline is caused by simple budgetary math. Death penalty cases cost a lot, and in a time of shrinking local budgets the money just isn’t there to prosecute them anymore:
The death penalty may be enacted by state legislatures, but county prosecutors impose it. Prosecutorial discretion is an unseen but elementary force that guides the criminal-justice system. Nowhere is that force’s impact better quantified than capital punishment…
…Capital cases are expensive and time-consuming. They require years of appeals, countless hours of testimony from experts and witnesses, and thousands of man-hours for both prosecutors and public defenders. These costs add up fast.
This of course doesn’t mean the death penalty is going to necessarily end anytime soon. The laws themselves could stay on the books for a very longtime indeed. But the trends surround capital punishment are pretty clear, it’s being less and less popular while crime is seen as less of an important issue by the American electorate. Combine that with that fact more and more states are abolishing the death penalty and only a handful of prosecutors bother to seek it these days and it becomes pretty clear that the United States is headed towards a future in which capital punishment is considered a relic of the past.
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