The use of the death penalty has hit a 20 year low; only 35 criminals were executed in 2014. 2014 was also the lowest for new death sentences in 40 years, with only 72 people sent to death row. A number of factors contributed to the declining death penalty, most obviously a downward trending violent crime rate and an uptick in exonerations thanks to modern forensics.
In 1972, the Supreme Court suspended use of the death penalty, citing it as cruel and unusual punishment violating the 8th amendment of the constitution. Thirty-seven states addressed the court’s concerns, setting up strict criteria for when and how capital punishment would be used, which convinced the Supreme Court justices to allow executions to continue, starting in 1977.
After jumping over the constitutional hurdles, use of the death penalty gradually rose until peeking in 1999, when 98 people were executed. But enthusiasm for capital punishment has declined.
Even Texas is changing. The state, well known for its liberal use of the death penalty, only oversaw 10 executions in 2014, tied with Missouri.
According to the Wall Street Journal, dozens of executions have been held up, in some cases permanently, because of a shortage of lethal injection drugs. Some states have been able to find new suppliers, others have tried new drug cocktails that have made executions more agonizing and unpopular.
Likewise, new evidence is overturning a number of death sentences. According to the statistics at the Death Penalty Information Center, seven death row inmates were acquitted or had their charges dismissed in 2014, with two of the cases being overturned using DNA evidence.
Some of the cases have made headlines, such as that of Ricky Jackson in Ohio, who was sentenced to death as a teenager based on the testimony of one 12-year-old witness. He spent 39 years in prison.
But as the Washington Post points out, the biggest factor in the death penalty decline is a drop in violent crime.
Violent crimes peeked at almost 80 per 10,000 people in 1991. Since then they tapered off, with just under 40 per 10,000 people in 2014. As criminals continued to be processed through the lengthy appeals system, the death penalty trends tend to follow behind the crime rates.
One of the biggest merits of capital punishment in the crime-ridden 90s was that it would serve as deterrent. However, as the Washington Post points out, despite the declining use of the death penalty, crime is not returning.
What makes this capital punishment low point more exceptional is historical data, which shows the death penalty was used on 197 people in 1935.
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