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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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STUDIES: Murder Rate Highest in South; Northeast Has Sharpest Decline
REGION 2013 Murder Rate 2012 Murder Rate Mur
Northeast 3.5 3.8
West 4.0 4.2
Midwest 4.5 4.7
South 5.3 5.5
NATIONAL 4.5 4.7

 On November 10 the Justice Department released its annual Uniform Crime Report for 2013. The report revealed an overall decline of 5.2% in the national murder rate. The Northeast had the lowest murder rate--3.5 murders per 100,000 people--and the sharpest decline from last year. The South again had the highest murder rate (5.3). The West had the second-lowest murder rate (4.0), followed by the Midwest (4.5). The states with the highest murder rates in the country were Louisiana (10.8) and Alabama (7.2). The states with the lowest rates were Iowa (1.4) and Hawaii (1.5). The Northeast has also had the fewest executions in the modern era, with 4, and none since 2005. The South has had the highest number of executions (1,132) since 1976. The average murder rate for states with the death penalty (4.4) was higher than the average rate for states without the death penalty (3.4).


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STUDIES: FBI Releases Report Including State Murder Rates for 2012

The U.S. Department of Justice recently released its annual FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2012. The national murder rate remained approximately the same in 2012 as in 2011. The Northeast, the region with the fewest executions, had the lowest murder rate of any region, and its murder rate decreased 3.4% from the previous year. The South, which carries out the most executions of any region, again had the highest murder rate in 2012. The murder rate in the West remained about the same, while the rate in the Midwest increased slightly. Six of the nine states with the lowest murder rates are states without the death penalty. The average murder rate of death penalty states was 4.7, while the average murder rate of states without the death penalty was 3.7 (not weighted by population).


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STUDIES: FBI Preliminary Crime Report for 2012

The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently released the preliminary findings of its annual Uniform Crime Report for 2012. The final report will likely be published in October, but the initial statistics indicate the number of murders in the U.S. increased slightly by 1.5% from 2011. Three regions of the country showed an increase in murders, while one region declined. Murders in the Northeast decreased by 4.4%. The number of murders increased by 3.3% in the Midwest, 2.5% in the South, and 2.5% in the West. The entire Northeast has not carried out an execution since 2005 and accounts for less than 1% of the executions in the country since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. It consistently has the lowest murder rate for the 4 regions. The South, which regularly has the highest murder rate, has been responsible for 82% of the executions; the Midwest 12%; and the West 6%.


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STUDIES: FBI Releases 2011 Crime Report Showing Drop in Murder Rates

On October 29, the U.S. Justice Department released the annual FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2011, indicating that the national murder rate dropped 1.5% from 2010. This decline occurred at a time when the use of the death penalty is also decreasing nationally.  The Northeast region, which uses the death penalty the least, had the lowest murder rate of the 4 geographic regions, and saw a 6.4% further decrease in its murder rate in 2011, the largest decrease of any region.  By contrast, the South, which carries out more executions than any other region, had the highest murder rate. It saw a small decline from last year. The murder rate in the West remained about the same, while the rate in the Midwest increased slightly.  Four of the five states with the highest murder rates are death-penalty states, while four of the five states with the lowest murder rates are states without the death penalty. See table below.


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STUDIES: FBI Uniform Crime Report Finds Murder Rates Declined in 2008

The annual crime report released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed a decline in the national murder rate.  The rate dropped 4.7% in 2008 compared to 2007. Despite a regional decline, the South still has the highest murder rate among the four geographic regions: 6.6 murders per 100,000 people, higher than the national rate of 5.4. The Northeast still maintains the lowest murder rate at 4.2. There were 16,272 murders or non-negligent manslaughters in 2008, according to the report.  (FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2008 (published Sept. 2009)). The South has accounted for over 80% of executions since 1976 (971 of 1176 executions), while the Northeast accounted for less than 1% (4 of 1176).  Of the 20 states with the highest murder rates in the country, all of them had the death penalty in 2008.


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