By Richard Dieter, cross-posted from California Progress Report
Richard C. Dieter is Executive Director of the invaluable Death Penalty Information Center
In a national survey of registered voters
by Lake Research Partners in 2010, 61% of respondents chose various
forms of a life without parole sentence as the proper punishment for
murder, and only 33% said the punishment should be the death penalty.
In fact, the death penalty is not a priority to most voters. The same
poll showed that almost two-thirds of voters would continue to support a
legislator who voted to repeal the death penalty. The most common
response was that a legislator's vote to repeal the death penalty would
make no difference to voters at all. The use of the death penalty was
last in a list of budgetary priorities among voters. Emergency services,
job creation, and crime prevention were the highest rated priorities.
Voters cite executing the innocent, unfairness, and the high costs of
the death penalty as their top concerns about this process.
According to a separate survey
by RT Strategies in 2007, sixty percent of Americans do not believe the
death penalty is a deterrent to murder and an amazing 87% believe that
an innocent person has been executed in recent years. The result of all
this doubt is that death sentences in this country have declined by over
60% since 1999. Executions have dropped by half, and four states in
the past four years have ended the death penalty altogether. More will
be taking up that question in 2012, including California, Maryland, and Connecticut.
It is true that the Gallup Poll regularly reports that American
support for the death penalty remains steady at about 64%, but that is a
superficial analysis of opinion that is belied by actions, most notably
the free fall in the use of the death penalty over the past decade.
The majority of Americans do not have a moral objection to the death
penalty; perhaps an error-free and efficient process would still get
their vote. But the death penalty in practice has proven to be so
politically motivated, so rife with biases and arbitrary application,
and so vulnerable to the worst kind of gross governmental mistake—the
killing of an innocent citizen—as to be unsupportable as a public policy
for growing majorities of voters.
Even in Texas, the number of death sentences has dropped dramatically
from a high of 48 in 1999 to 8 last year, and executions declined by
28% last year compared to the year before. All death penalty states have
now adopted the sentence of life in prison with no parole, and that is
the sentence frequently meted out even in egregious murders.
Some states in the U.S., such as Michigan and Wisconsin, were far
ahead of Europe and Latin America in abolishing the death penalty 150
years ago. Less than a quarter of our states carried out an execution in
2010. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, over 82% of the
executions have been in just one region of the country—the South—and
almost half of those executions were in just one state—Texas. The death
penalty is not a national phenomenon. The U.S. Military has not carried
out an execution since the early 1960s and the federal government has
carried out only three, and none in the past 8 years.
The death penalty train has left the station and is heading into
history. It will, no doubt, linger on as a tool of political rhetoric
and as a curious symbol of the past. But there is no doubt that the
American people are ready for its demise and that the leaders of
tomorrow will likely be glad when it is finally gone.