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Published On: Tue, Aug 11th, 2020

States Trending Away From Death Penalty

The nation continues to trend away from capital punishment, at least on the state level. According to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 2019 marked the fifth year in a row that the country saw less than 30 executions. The report also highlighted the five-year trend in which less than 50 new death penalties were imposed per year.

This reduction in executions and death sentences correlates with a growing number of states placing a moratorium on the punishment. Many of these states are using temporary restrictions to help courts and legislators evaluate the punishment’s impact. 

“The death penalty exists in 29 states and in the federal criminal system,” says Federal Attorney Benson Varghese. “However, there are many areas of the country where the death penalty is falling out of favor. Even in states where the death penalty is in favor, the sheer cost of trying a death penalty case and completing the appeal process makes the decision to seek the death penalty a difficult one for prosecutors. Nationwide, we expect to see a continued decrease in the number of death penalties sought.”

The overwhelming majority of executions that occurred last year took place in just one region of the country – the South. Five states were responsible for 20 of the 22 executions: Texas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. Texas alone was responsible for nine of those deaths. Although, it’s worth noting that even in Texas, the rate at which new death sentences are imposed is declining.

Photo/Nodar Kherkheulidze via wikimedia commons

The scene at the federal level is different. President Trump has long been a proponent of the death penalty, and his administration announced its intent to restart the federal capital punishment program. Federal executions are rare and none have happened since 2003. Still, there are many on federal death row, awaiting the federal debate and appeals process to decide their fate. 

For at least now, however, a federal judge has put a hold on the Trump Administration’s desire to resume carrying out federal executions.

United States Attorney General William Barr stated that it is the duty of the Justice Department to uphold the law and carry out the sentences imposed by the courts. He explained that victims and families are owed this measure of justice. In some cases, retribution factors into sentencing penalties. This may mean the death penalty acts as the ultimate tool for justice.

That said, the increasingly conservative United States Supreme Court has signaled that it is tiring of last-minute calls for a reprieve for death row inmates. Justice Neil Gorsuch recently stated that appeals that have the appearance of being manipulative or of stemming from procrastination may be denied on those grounds. This shift would help resume federal executions and prevent those unnecessary appeals.

Nevertheless, the number of death sentences has declined more than 80 percent since the 1990s. While its notion persists in some circles, the death penalty is steadily fading away as an option for punishment, if only in a de facto sense.

With a decrease in the number of state executions, it will be interesting to see how federal courts and legislatures approach the issue. Removing the death penalty may provide sentencing relief to a variety of inmates, but it may also hurt the victims’ rights. For the victim, a life sentence could mean living with a sense of fear while the offender is in prison.

In all, the legislatures and courts must balance the rights between the victims and sentenced offenders to decide the death penalty’s role in modern America. State executions may be on the decline, but future federal death penalty policy could guide national trends for years to come.

Author: Sadaf Zain

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