Worldwide, the death penalty is trending toward abolition. At the beginning of the 20th century, only three countries— Costa Rica, San Marino, and Venezuela—had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. By 1977, only 14 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Another 2 countries had abolished it for all but exceptional capital crimes such as those committed during wartime. As of January 11, 2008, a total of 91 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes; another 11 countries had abolished it for all but exceptional capital crimes; and 33 countries had abolished it in practice—that is, they retain the death penalty but have not carried out an execution for at least 10 years and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not using the death penalty.
More than 40 countries have abolished the death penalty since 1990. Since 1985, only 4 of those countries have reintroduced the death penalty. Two of those countries, Nepal and the Philippines, have since abolished it again, and the two other countries, Gambia and Papua New Guinea, have not executed anyone since reintroducing the penalty. Currently, nearly 70% of the countries in the world— 135 of them—have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Only 62 countries have retained the death penalty. Among Western, industrialized nations, the United States stands alone as the only nation to employ capital punishment. All the major allies of the United States except Japan have abolished the death penalty.
Furthermore, the number of countries that actually execute anyone in a given year is much smaller. In 2006, there were 1,591 executions around the world, down more than 25% from the 2,148 in 2005. Of all known executions that took place in 2006, approximately 91% were carried out in six countries: China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, and the United States. Of the 1,452 executions that took place in those six countries, approximately 70% were carried out in China; 12% in Iran; 6% in Pakistan, and 4% each in Iraq, Sudan, and the United States.
In the United States, as noted, 38 jurisdictions have a death penalty and 15 jurisdictions do not, and as of April 1, 2008, there have been 1,099 executions since the practice resumed in 1977. There were 60 executions in 2005; a total of 53 executions in 2006; another 41 executions in 2007; and, as of this writing, no executions so far in 2008. Of the 1,099 executions since 1977, about 82% of them have been carried out in the South, 11.5% in the Midwest, 6% in the West, and .4% in the Northeast. Thus, for all intents and purposes, executions in the United States are a mostly southern phenomenon (including border states).
Of the 34 death penalty states that have carried out at least one execution since 1977, half of them have executed fewer than 10 people. Only five of the executing states account for 65% of the 1,099 executions: Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Florida. Three of those states— Texas, Virginia, and Oklahoma—account for more than half of the 1,099 executions (53.5%). Texas and Virginia account for approximately 46% of the total, and Texas, alone, accounts for approximately 37%. Texas has executed more than 4 times as many offenders as any other state. Texas accounted for about 45% of the 2006 U.S. executions and 63% of the 2007 U.S. executions. In short, except for a handful of non-Western countries in the world and a handful of mostly southern or border states to the United States, the death penalty is a dwindling practice. This is an important point because it raises the question of why those death penalty—or more precisely, executing— jurisdictions in the world need the death penalty, while all other jurisdictions—the vast majority—do not.
There are several other reasons to believe that the death penalty in the United States may be a waning institution. First, although abstract support for the death penalty remains relatively high—it was 69%, according to a 2007 Gallup poll—when respondents are provided an alternative, such as life imprisonment with absolutely no possibility of parole (LWOP), support for the death penalty falls to about 50%.
Second, the American public continues to express some concern about the way the death penalty is being administered. For example, a 2005 Gallup poll found that 35% of the American public did not believe that the death penalty is applied fairly. However, the 73% of Americans in 2003 that believed an innocent person had been executed in the last 5 years dropped to 63% in 2006. Most people believe that the execution of innocent people is a rare occurrence. For example, in the 2005 Gallup poll, 57% of respondents believed that the execution of an innocent person happened no more than 5% of the time. Only about 11% of respondents believed that more than 20% of executions involved innocent people. Although concern about the death penalty’s administration has decreased somewhat from the level of concern expressed in 2000, it remains higher than it was prior to revelations about the quality of justice in capital murder trials, the overturning of several convictions as a result of DNA tests, and the resulting moratorium on executions in Illinois and elsewhere.
A third factor involves the positions taken by respected organizations within the United States, such as the American Bar Association (ABA) and organized religions. In 1997, the ABA adopted a resolution that requested death penalty jurisdictions to refrain from using the sanction until greater fairness and due process could be assured. The leaders of most organized religions in the United States— including Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—openly oppose capital punishment. A recent survey found that of the 126 religious organizations that responded, 61% (77) officially oppose capital punishment, 17% (22) officially support it, and 21% (27) leave it up to individual congregations or individual religious leaders to determine their own position on capital punishment. (Read more about Religion and Death Penalty)
A fourth factor is world opinion. As noted previously, all major allies of the United States except Japan have abolished the death penalty. In Europe, the death penalty is viewed as a violation of human rights. A condition for admittance into the European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe is the abolition of the death penalty. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has repeatedly condemned the death penalty in the United States, urging the U.S. government to stop all executions until it brings states into compliance with international standards and laws.
On the other hand, capital punishment in some states has proven stubbornly resilient. There are reasons to believe that in those states, the death penalty will remain a legal sanction for the foreseeable future. One reason is that death penalty support among the American public, at least according to the major opinion polls, remains relatively strong. It is unlikely that the practice of capital punishment could be sustained if a majority of American citizens were to oppose it. However, in no year for which polls are available has a majority of Americans opposed the death penalty. (The first national death penalty opinion poll was conducted in December 1936.)
Although life imprisonment without opportunity for parole seems to be a popular alternative to the death penalty in polls, a problem with the LWOP alternative is that many people are very skeptical about the ability of correctional authorities to keep capital murderers imprisoned for life. Thus, although more than half of the public may say that it prefers LWOP to capital punishment, in practice, people may be reluctant to make the substitution because they fear that the alternative might not adequately protect them from the future actions of convicted capital offenders.
The abiding faith of death penalty proponents in the ability of legislatures and courts to fix any problems with the administration of capital punishment is another reason for its continued use in some places. However, the more than three-decade record of “fine-tuning” the death penalty process remains ongoing. Legislatures and courts are having a difficult time “getting it right,” despite spending inordinate amounts of their resources trying. Former Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who for more than 20 years supported the administration of capital punishment in the United States, finally gave up. On February 22, 1994, in a dissent from the Court’s refusal to hear the appeal of a Texas inmate scheduled to be executed the next day, Blackmun asserted that he had come to the conclusion that “the death penalty experiment has failed” and that it was time for the Court to abandon the “delusion” that capital punishment could be administered in a way that was consistent with the Constitution. He noted that “from this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death” (Callins v. Collins, 1994).
As for the positions against capital punishment taken by respected organizations in the United States, “true believers” in the death penalty couldn’t care less what others think, especially in the case of organizations such as the American Bar Association. This holds true for world opinion as well. In the case of organized religions, the situation is probably more complex. Although most people who consider themselves religious and are affiliated with religions whose leadership opposes capital punishment probably respect the views of their leaders, they obviously live their daily lives and hold beliefs about capital punishment (and other issues such as abortion) based on other values.
Some death penalty opponents believe that a principal reason for the continuing support of capital punishment is that most people know very little about the subject, and what they think they know is based almost entirely on myth. It is assumed that if people were educated about capital punishment, most of them would oppose it. Unfortunately, research suggests that educating the public about the death penalty may not have the effect that opponents of the practice desire. Although accurate information about the death penalty can reduce support for the sanction— sometimes significantly—rarely is the support reduced to less than a majority, and any reduction in support may be only temporary.
What else, then, sustains the public’s death penalty support? At least two other factors appear to play a major role: the desire for vindictive revenge and the symbolic value capital punishment has for politicians and law enforcement officials. In a recent Gallup poll, 50% of all respondents who favored the death penalty selected “An eye for an eye/ Convicted deserve to be executed” as a reason. The reasons selected second-most often (by only 11%) were “Save taxpayers money/Cost associated with prison” and deterrence. No other reasons were selected by more than 10% of the death penalty proponents. The choice of “An eye for an eye/Convicted deserve to be executed” indicates support of the penal purpose of retribution. Those who chose this reason wanted to repay the offender for what he or she has done. This response, at least the “eye for an eye” part, has a strong emotional component and thus has been called “vindictive revenge.”
The other factor that probably sustains death penalty support is the symbolic value it has for politicians and criminal justice officials. Politicians use support for the death penalty as a symbol of their toughness on crime. Opposition to capital punishment is invariably interpreted as symbolic of softness on crime. Criminal justice officials and much of the public often equate support for capital punishment with support for law enforcement in general. It is ironic that although capital punishment has virtually no proven effect on crime, the death penalty continues to be a favored political “silver bullet”—a simplistic solution to the crime problem used by aspiring politicians and law enforcement officials. Together with the movement to replace indeterminate sentencing with determinate sentencing and to abolish parole, the death penalty is part of the “law and order” agenda popular in the United States since the mid- 1970s.Whether this direction in criminal justice has run its course is anyone’s guess. However, it appears that the effort to “get tough” with criminals has not produced the results desired by its advocates.