The death penalty in America is a failed, expensive policy defined by bias and error.
It is a direct descendant of lynching. More than eight in ten American lynchings between 1889 and 1918 occurred in the South, and more than eight in ten of the more than 1400 executions carried out in this country since 1976 have been in the South. Modern death sentences are disproportionately meted out to African Americans accused of crimes against white victims. African Americans make up less than 13 percent of the nation’s population, but 43 percent of the 2943 people currently on death row are black, and 35 percent of those executed since 1976 have been black. The victim was white in over 75 percent of the cases resulting in execution since 1976, although only 50 percent of murder victims nationwide are white. The chief prosecutors in death penalty states are overwhelmingly white; only about one percent are black.
Mounting evidence shows that innocent people have been sentenced to death and that serious legal errors infect the administration of capital punishment: 156 people have been exonerated and released from death row. For every nine people executed in this country, one innocent person on death row has been identified and exonerated. In response to growing concerns about reliability, many states have suspended executions or experienced a decline in the use of capital punishment, but most Southern states have continued to condemn and execute large numbers of people who disproportionately are poor and racial minorities.
Policymakers are increasingly recognizing the death penalty as a prohibitively expensive policy that does not contribute to public safety. The evidence is clear that executions do not lower homicide rates; indeed, the South has the nation’s highest murder rate despite carrying out 81 percent of executions. (The Northeast, which has less than 1 percent of all executions, has the lowest murder rate.) Executions cost millions of dollars more than imposing life sentences, and polls show that a majority of Americans prefer life over death sentences. Seven states have abolished the death penalty since 2007, the governors in four states have halted executions, and the death sentencing rate has dropped dramatically from 277 death sentences imposed in 1999 to just 49 in 2015 nationwide.