Researcher: Racial Disparities Require Abolishing or Severely Restricting Death Penalty

Severely restricting the use of capital punishment or abolishing the death penalty altogether would help rectify some of the persistent racial disparities found in the United States' criminal justice system, according to Cassia Spohn (pictured), the Foundation Professor of Criminology and Director of the School of Criminology & Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. In a chapter on Race and Sentencing Disparity in the recently released Academy for Justice four-volume study, Reforming Criminal JusticeSpohn—the author of How Do Judges Decide? The Search for Fairness and Justice in Punishmentwrites that there is “clear and convincing evidence of racial disparity in the application of the death penalty” in the United States. Spohn's chapter traces the theoretical and methodological development in research into the relationship between race/ethnicity and sentencing over the past eight decades. She concludes that “reducing racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing and punishment requires something more than the passage of legislation designed to reduce incrementally the discretion of prosecutors, judges, and corrections officials." She recommends three major reforms "to reduce both the punitive bite of incarceration and the disparity in punishment": eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, abolishing the death penalty, and enacting Racial Justice Acts that would allow judges to consider whether racial bias played a role in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty and permit prisoners to challenge their sentences with statistical evidence showing a pattern of racial discrimination in sentencing. Spohn cites demographic evidence that, she says, convincingly demonstrates clear racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty in the United States. In 2016, 41.8% of the 2,905 prisoners under sentence of death in the United States and more than a third of those executed since 1977 (34.5%) were Black, although African Americans make up only 13% of the population. Similarly, she writes, those who murder White victims are sentenced to death and executed at disproportionately high rates: from 1977 through 2016, 75.6% of executed prisoners were convicted of killing White victims, as compared to 15.3% who were convicted of killing Black victims, and 6.9% convicted of killing Hispanics. The disparities, she found, were "particularly pronounced" in the use of the death penalty for rape, before the Supreme Court declared that practice unconstitutional in 1977. Between 1930 and 1972, 455 people were executed for rape; 405 of them (89%) were Black men and a number of states did not execute a single White man for rape during this period. Spohn argues that Racial Justice Acts could provide important safeguards in addressing discriminatory death-penalty practices. However, she writes, efforts to enact them have largely failed. The U.S. House of Representatives included a Racial Justice Act as part of the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994, but it was removed by the Senate, where opponents "argued that it would effectively abolish the death penalty in the United States." Only Kentucky and North Carolina enacted state Racial Justice Acts, and the North Carolina legislature repealed its act in 2013 after four death row prisoners established that race had been a significant factor in their sentencing. Spohn concludes that "[t]he defeat of the Racial Justice Act in Congress and the failure of the issue to gain traction in the states, coupled with persuasive evidence of racial disparity in the application of the death penalty, suggest that the remedy for racial bias in the capital sentencing process is abolition of the death penalty."

(Cassia Spohn, Race and Sentencing Disparity, in Reforming Criminal Justice: Bridging the Gap Between Scholarship and Reform, vol. 4, "Punishment, Incarceration, and Release," Academy for Justice, Arizona State University (E. Luna, editor, 2017).)  See BooksStudies, and Race