Thursday, March 11, 2010

Is the Death Penalty on Life Support?

Is the death penalty merely out of vogue or has its usefulness been mitigated to the point that it is no longer an appropriate punishment? The death penalty has fallen in and out of favor over the last two centuries. The death penalty waned prior to the civil war. There was a resurgence in the late 19th century and then capital punishment fell out of favor in the first quarter of the 20th century.

In the 1940's, the death penalty was reenergized only to decline in use in the 1950's and 1960's. In the Mid-1970's, the death penalty was outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court. However in 1976, capital punishment was back and there was a resurgence in the 1990's as violent crime rates soared. The four busiest years for the modern death penalty were 1997 through 2000, when the nation averaged 81 executions per year.

There have been 1,196 executions since 1976. Texas was responsible for 450 of those executions. Virginia was a distant second with 105.

The Crime Report has an interesting take on why Texas and Virginia represent a turning point in capital punishment. Instead of looking at executions--Texas carried out almost half of all executions last year--the Crime Report suggests looking at the number of executions imposed. Texas imposed only nine death sentences in 2009. The lowest number since 1976. Virginia has imposed only one death sentence in the last two years.

During the mid-1990's Texas was averaging 48 death sentences per year. Last year, Texas tried only 32 death penalty cases and five were actually re-trials.

My Take

Some legal observers suggest the life without parole (LWOP) and concern over wrongful convictions have fueled the skepticism about imposing the death penalty. Juries may be more comfortable with the idea that a convicted killer will serve LWOP and at the same time eliminate the chance of a wrongful execution.

Would juries be interested in knowing that there are organized efforts to eliminate LWOP? A killer convicted to life in prison might some day walk the street. There are also efforts in states such as Kansas, New Hampshire and Colorado to rescind the death penalty due to growing costs and dwindling resources.

Financial impact is playing a more meaningful role in legislative action regarding the criminal justice system. It is not just the death penalty, but prison crowding, sentencing schemes, policing, treatment and rehabilitation. Will the financial concerns impact community safety? Unfortunately, only time, and the possiblity of more victims, will tell.

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