Gallup Poll—Fewer than Half of Americans, a New Low, Believe Death Penalty is Applied Fairly
Fewer than half of Americans now believe the death penalty is fairly applied in the United States, according to the 2018 annual Gallup crime poll of U.S. adults, conducted October 1-10. The 49% of Americans who said they believed the death penalty was "applied fairly" was the lowest Gallup has ever recorded since it first included the question in its crime poll in 2000. The percentage of U.S. adults who said they believe the death penalty is unfairly applied rose to 45%, the highest since Gallup began asking the question, and the four-percentage-point difference between the two responses was the smallest in the history of Gallup's polling.
The poll also found that, even as the number of new death sentences are near historic lows, the percentage of Americans saying that the death penalty is imposed too often continued to rise and the percentage saying it is not imposed enough continued to decline. 57% of U.S. adults said the death penalty was imposed either "too often" (29%) or "about the right amount" (28%). In 2010, just 18% said the death penalty was imposed too often. While a plurality of 37% said the death penalty was not imposed enough, that figure was down 16% from the 53% level who in 2005 said it was not imposed enough. Gallup analyst Justin McCarthy wrote that "as executions in the U.S. have decreased along with the generally sinking crime rate, Americans have become more likely to say capital punishment is unfairly applied and that it is imposed too frequently."
Gallup measured overall support for capital punishment at 56%, which McCarthy described as "similar to last year's 55%." 2017, he said, "marked the lowest level of support for the practice since 1972." He said "support for capital punishment ... has been trending downward since peaking at 80% in the mid-1990s during a high point in the violent crime rate." The poll measured opposition to the death penalty at 41%, the same as last year's 45-year high. A national Pew Reseach Center poll released in June 2018 reported support for the death penalty at 54% and opposition at 39%. A 2017 study reported that murders in the 37 states that authorized the death penalty in 1994 declined by 35.4% between then and 2014, but that death sentences declined by 76.5%—more than double that rate—over the same time frame.
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FBI Crime Report Shows Murder Rates Stable in 2017
The FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2017, released by the U.S. Department of Justice, reports that murder rates stabilized across the United States in 2017, decreasing marginally compared to adjusted homicide figures from 2016 but remaining above the record lows recorded earlier in the decade. The initial FBI crime figures for 2017 report 17,284 murders across the United States in 2017, compared to 17,413 in 2016, dropping the nationwide murder rate from 5.4 murders per 100,000 people to 5.3. The homicide numbers are virtually identical to the initial FBI homicide figures included in the 2016 FBI Uniform Crime Report, which initially reported 17,250 murders and a murder rate of 5.3 murders per 100,000 people in 2016. Once again, states with the death penalty tended to have higher murder rates than states without the death penalty, with Louisiana and Missouri topping the list at 12.4 and 9.8 murders per 100,000 population, respectively. Seven of the nine states with the highest murder rates (and sixteen of the twenty highest) are death-penalty states, while five of the eight states with the lowest murder rates (and nine of the lowest fifteen) do not have the death penalty. New Hampshire, which has the death penalty, and North Dakota and Maine, which do not, had the lowest murder rates at 1.0, 1.3, and 1.7 murders per 100,000 population, respectively. The data also supports the idea that abolishing the death penalty does not make states more dangerous. Delaware, which ended the death penalty in 2016, saw a 7.8% decrease in its murder rate from 2016 to 2017. As in past years, regional data showed that more executions do not mean lower murder rates. The South, which has performed far more executions than any other region, continued to have the highest murder rate (6.4 per 100,000 people), while the Northeast, which has carried out only four executions since 1976, had the lowest (3.5). FBI data shows that murder rates have fallen dramatically since the 1980s and 1990s, contributing to the nationwide decline in capital punishment. The current murder rate is 45.9% below 1991's murder rate of 9.8 per 100,000 people. However, the decline in new death sentences has been even greater, with the 39 death sentences imposed in 2017 87.5% below the 315 death sentences imposed in 1994 and 1996.
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OUTLIER COUNTIES: Death Sentences, Executions More Likely in Hamilton County Than Elsewhere in Ohio
With 24 prisoners currently condemned to die, Hamilton County—home to Cincinnati—has the largest death row of any county in Ohio, despite a smaller population and a lower murder rate than other parts of the state. Ten of the 55 prisoners executed in the state since the 1970s were sentenced to death in Hamilton County, again more than any other Ohio county. In a recent pair of articles in The Cincinnati Enquirer, reporter Dan Horn describes the county's long history with the death penalty and reports that the county's current aggressive use of the death penalty stems from the county's culture and politics. According to Horn's analysis of Death Penalty Information Center data, Hamilton County's death row is currently the 22nd largest county death row in the country. While Hamilton is not among the nation's seventy largest counties, it ranks among the fewer than 1 percent of U.S. counties that the Enquirer found now account for 40 percent of all death-row prisoners in the country. Of counties with 20 or more death-row prisoners, Hamilton has the seventh largest death row, per capita. “There’s no question Hamilton County is and definitely was a conservative county,” said Andrew Welsh-Huggins, the author of the book No Winners Here Tonight—a comprehensive analysis of Ohio's death penalty. “A conservative county is going to elect conservative prosecutors, and they’re going to take their cues from that," Welsh-Huggins told Horn. Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters exemplifies that characterization, saying, "People in really bad cases want the death penalty. There are certain cases that are so hideous they are just evil." Welsh-Huggins's book—and his earlier 2005 capital punishment study for Associated Press—documented Ohio's on-going unequal application of the death penalty, with race-of-victim, geography, and plea-bargains all affecting death sentencing. The AP study showed that while 8.5% of capitally charged defendants had received death sentences in Cuyahoga County (including the city of Cleveland), 43% had been sentenced to death in Hamilton. Today, two other Ohio counties with larger populations and more murders than Hamilton have fewer people on death row: Cuyahoga has 21 and Franklin County 11. Welsh-Huggins summarized the cause of such geographic disparities, telling Horn: “The law is prosecuted differently depending on who is the elected prosecutor. Your chances of going to death row depend on where you committed the crime.”
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Experience Shows No “Parade of Horribles” Following Abolition of the Death Penalty
States that have recently abolished the death penalty have not experienced the “parade of horribles”—including increased murder rates—predicted by death-penalty proponents, according to death-penalty experts who participated in a panel discussion at the 2017 American Bar Association national meeting in New York City. Instead, the panelists said, abolition appears to have created opportunities to move forward with other broader criminal justice reforms. The transcript of that panel presentation, Life After the Death Penalty: Implications for Retentionist States, which was posted by the ABA on January 3, features discussion of the political factors that contributed to repeal and research into the effects of death-penalty abolition in those states in which repeal has recently occurred. The panel discussion, jointly hosted by the American Bar Association Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and the New York City Bar Association in August 2017, featured four speakers with backgrounds in death-penalty activism, reform, or research: Thomas P. Sullivan, Co-Chair of the 2000 Commission on Capital Punishment in Illinois; Shari Silberstein, Executive Director of Equal Justice USA; Celeste Fitzgerald, former Director of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; and Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. The first three speakers described the circumstances that led to abolition in the six states that legislatively repealed or judicially abolished capital punishment between 2007 and 2014 and explained how abolition sponsors overcame opponents' arguments that, as Fitgerald characterized it, “abolition would bring about a 'parade of horribles.'” Silberstein summarized those worries, saying, “The death penalty proponents' arguments were all the traditional ones you would expect. They talked about the bloodbath that would come if there were no death penalty: murders would spike; the killings of police officers would spike; killings of corrections officers would spike.” Dunham discussed DPIC's research on three decades of murder rates in the U.S., which, he said, shows that abolition of the death penalty had no discernible effect on murder rates in general or murder rates of police and corrections officers killed in the line of duty. Dunham said that if the arguments advanced by death-penalty proponents were factually supported, murder rates in general and the rates at which police and corrections officers were killed should have risen after states abolished the death penalty, both in those states and in comparison to trends in other states. And, Dunham said, “if—as opponents of death-penalty abolition had argued—police officers were especially vulnerable without the death penalty and its repeal would lead to 'open season on police officers,' you'd expect to see not just an increase in the rate at which police officers were killed, but an increase in the number of murders of police officers as a percentage of all homicides.” None of this happened, he said. Instead, murders of law enforcement officers were much lower in the states that recently abolished the death penalty. “[T]he death penalty appears to make no measurable contribution to police safety,” Dunham said. The panelists also observed that repeal of capital punishment had created an opportunity for additional criminal justice reform. Sullivan noted that, prior to repeal, “[a] great deal of time, attention, and effort were spent on the few cases that involved the death penalty in Illinois, while little attention was given to the huge number of people who were convicted and incarcerated for crimes. All that time, attention, and money can now be shifted to reforming the entire Illinois criminal justice system. That would mean that there has been a double benefit from having abolished the death penalty in Illinois.” Silberstein said that in New York, abolition permitted “stakeholders who could not talk to each other in the same way when the death penalty was on the table because [of] differences over the death penalty” to discuss “how best to achieve the key goals of safety and healing [and] work on increasing funding and programs to reduce violence.”
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New Jersey Marks Tenth Anniversary of Abolition of Capital Punishment
On December 17, 2007, New Jersey abolished the death penalty. On the tenth anniversary of abolition, the editorial board of the New Jersey Law Journal writes, "On the Death Penalty, New Jersey Got it Right." The editorial board wrote, “Abolition has proven its worth, in that there has been no surge of murders, a significant decline of prosecution and appeal expenses, and the elimination of unremediable judicial mistakes. [Abolition] was and remains both the right thing and the sensible thing to have done.” In August 1982, New Jersey reenacted the death penalty, six years after the United State Supreme Court decision in Gregg v. Georgia upheld the constitutionality of state capital punishment laws. However, no defendant was ever executed in the state. In January 2006, the state legislature passed a bill creating the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission and imposing a moratorium on executions until the commission issued its report. The study commission’s report, released on January 2, 2007, recommended abolishing capital punishment. Among other findings, the commission determined that the costs of imposing the death penalty were “greater than the costs of life in prison without parole” and that there was “no compelling evidence that the New Jersey death penalty serves a legitimate penological intent.” Less than a year later, Governor Jon Corzine signed legislation abolishing the death penalty. Murders fell in New Jersey after the moratorium and repeal bills became law, marking the first time since 1999 that New Jersey experienced a drop in murders for two consecutive years. One year after repeal, New Jersey prosecutors reported that the abolition had not hindered prosecution of the state’s most violent offenders. The Law Journal editorial board said that, after a decade, the study commission’s assessment that the death penalty was not a deterrent to murder “has proven its worth." The murder rate in New Jersey has been lower than it was in 2007 for eight of the past nine years and a 2017 DPIC study of murder rates over the last three decades found no difference in murder trends based upon whether a state had, or did not have, capital punishment. A December 15 statement released by the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey hailed the state’s abolition of the death penalty “as a victory for the dignity of life.” The Bishops wrote that while they “affirm the state’s duty to punish criminals, to prevent crime, and to assist victims,” they also “recognize the need to improve our criminal justice system and to forge a greater societal commitment to justice.” Society, they said, “has effective ways to protect itself and to redress injustice without resorting to the use of the death penalty.”
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BOOKS: End of Its Rope—How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice
"The death penalty in the United States is at the end of its rope [and] its abolition will be a catalyst for reforming our criminal justice system." So argues University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon L. Garrett in his widely anticipated new book, End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice, which analyzes the reasons behind the steep decline in capital punishment in over the last 25 years. With the help of other researchers at the University of Virginia, Garrett analyzed death-sentencing data from 1990 to 2016, county by county. He found that numerous interrelated factors contributed to the decline: the drop in murders across the country, the creation of institutional capital defender offices that greatly improved the quality of representation, the availability of life without parole as a sentencing option, the cost of the death penalty system, and growing public awareness of exonerations and the risk of wrongly sentencing innocent defendants to death, fueled further by the abolition of capital punishment in some states and the abandonment of capital prosecutions by many counties. Local culture had a profound effect on death sentencing practices: Garrett found that states and counties that most frequently executed people developed what he terms a “muscle memory” for the practice and “imposed far more death sentences just as a function of having done so in the past." But, the converse was also true: when a county stopped sentencing people to death, it was less likely to resume the practice. Garrett found that death sentences have now all but disappeared from rural America, and are now imposed mainly in larger, urban areas. Garrett told the The Marshall Project, "we found a strong county-level pattern of racial bias. Counties with more black residents have more death sentences. And counties with more white victims of murder have more death sentences. Call it a 'white lives matter' effect," he said. In an interview with University of Virginia publicists, Garrett described the death penalty as "a failed experiment." He said states’ recent efforts to reform death-penalty procedures to “save the death penalty from itself” have failed because “the bias, both racial and geographic, is too ingrained. Lawmakers have tried to speed up executions, but have instead seen more delays and botched executions. They have tried to insist on higher-quality proof, and have still seen exonerations of innocent death row inmates." Garrett hopes that as the death penalty wanes, the lessons learned can buttress other efforts to reform America's criminal justice system and to move away from "mass incarceration and harsh punishment more broadly.”
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NEW PODCAST: DPIC Study Finds No Evidence that Death Penalty Deters Murder or Protects Police
A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of U.S. murder data from 1987 through 2015 has found no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or protects police. Instead, the evidence shows that murder rates, including murders of police officers, are consistently higher in death-penalty states than in states that have abolished the death penalty. And far from experiencing increases in murder rates or open season on law enforcement, the data show that states that have abolished the death penalty since 2000 have the lowest rates of police officers murdered in the line of duty and that killings of police account for a much smaller percentage of murders in those states. In a new Discussions With DPIC podcast, "Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder?," DPIC Fellow Seth Rose and Executive Director Robert Dunham explore the assertions long made by death-penalty proponents that capital punishment advances public safety by deterring murders and by protecting police officers. Dunham said the short answer—after analyzing twenty-nine years of annual murder data from FBI Uniform Crime Reports ("UCR") and FBI annual data on Law Enforcement Officers Killed & Assaulted, Officers Feloniously Killed ("LEOKA reports")—is no. "There's no evidence that the death penalty deters murder and there's no evidence that it protects the police," Dunham says. "Murder rates may be affected by many things, but the death penalty doesn't appear to be one of them." DPIC divided the states into three categories to analyze murders and murder trends: states that have long had the death penalty ("death-penalty states"), states that have long abolished capital punishment ("non-death-penalty states"), and states that have abolished capital punishment since 2000 ("transitional states"). The data show that the death-penalty states had an overall UCR murder rate that was 1.39 times higher than the non-death penalty states and accounted for 12 of the 16 states with the highest murder rates. Police officers were murdered in death-penalty states at a rate that was 1.37 times higher than in non-death-penalty states, and accounted for 22 of the 25 states with the highest LEOKA rates of officers feloniously killed. Killings of police were lowest, however, in the transitional states that most recently abolished the death penalty. And while killings of officers accounted for 33 of every 10,000 murders in both death-penalty and non-death-penalty states, they were 1.6 times lower in transitional states. What the numbers show, Dunham says, is that "the death penalty doesn't drive murder rates; murder rates drive the death penalty." While the death penalty, he says, "makes no measurable contribution" to police safety, "the rate at which police officers are killed drives the political debate about the death penalty."
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STUDIES: FBI Crime Report Shows Murder Rates Remain Higher in Death Penalty States
The U.S. Department of Justice released its annual FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2014, reporting no change in the national murder rate since 2013. In the Northeast, the region with the fewest executions, the murder rate declined 5.7%, from 3.5 to 3.3 per 100,000 population. The murder rate was 1.7 times higher in the South, which carries out the most executions of any region. That region saw a 3.4% increase in the homicide rate, and its 5.5 murders per 100,00 population remained the highest rate of any region. Murder rates in the West and Midwest declined by 3.8% and 5.4%, respectively. A DPIC analysis of weighted murder rates found that death penalty jurisdictions continue to have a higher murder rate than non-death penalty jurisdictions (including Washington, D.C.): 4.7 per 100,000 compared to 3.8 per 100,000. Ten of the eleven states with the highest murder rates have the death penalty, while six of the eight lowest do not.
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TIME Magazine Poses Five Reasons for Death Penalty Decline
In a cover story for TIME Magazine, award-winning journalist and TIME editor-at-large David Von Drehle explores the decline of capital punishment in the U.S. Von Drehle offers five significant reasons for the drop in death sentences, executions, and public support for the death penalty in the United States. First, he cites persistent problems with the administration of the death penalty: botched executions and a lengthy appeals process that fails to identify wrongful convictions for decades, if at all. Second, he points to the falling crime rate, showing that support for the death penalty has closely tracked the national murder rate throughout the 20th century. The third reason Von Drehle gives is the erosion of the justification for capital punishment. Life without parole sentences provide an alternative way to ensure that a murderer will never be released and an equivalent to "[w]hatever deterrent capital punishment provides." He also describes the historical use of executions as a tool of white supremacy. While he notes that "the overt racism of the old order is now plainly unconstitutional," the system remains plagued by economic bias, as a result of which "[t]hose without the capital get the punishment." Fourth, he highlights the financial cost of the death penalty, which has led some prosecutors to decide that death sentences are simply not a priority within a constrained budget. Finally, he says, "Actions of the legislatures, lower-court judges and governors can all be read by the Supreme Court as signs of 'evolving standards of decency' in society," which the U.S. Supreme Court may eventually see as justification for striking down capital punishment. He concludes, "The facts are irrefutable, and the logic is clear. Exhausted by so many years of trying to prop up this broken system, the court will one day throw in the towel."
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FBI Reports Continued Decline in Police Officers Killed
On November 24, the FBI released a report on law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 2013. Twenty-seven (27) officers were killed in "felonious acts," a 45% drop compared to 2012, when 49 officers were killed, and a 53% decline since 2004. Most (15) of the 27 officers killed were in the South, with Texas having the highest number of any state (6). Six officers were killed in the West, four in the Midwest, and only two in the Northeast. California had the second highest number, with 5. In 26 out of the 27 incidents, officers were killed by firearms. Forty-nine (49) other officers died as a result of accidents.
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