Racial Disparities Are Increasing as the Death Penalty Declines


A new report analyzing over 40 years of data on the death penalty in America finds that racial disparities in death sentences are increasing even as fewer sentences are imposed and more Americans are rejecting capital punishment.

Racial disparities are increasing as the use of the death penalty declines.

In a four-part series examining the modern death penalty, The Intercept found that racial disparities are increasing as the use of the death penalty is decreasing. “Rather than becoming more equitable over time as new death sentences become rarer across the country,” reporters found, “the death penalty appears to be more racially biased than ever.”

In the first full decade after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 46% of those sentenced to die in current death penalty states were people of color. In the decade from January 2009 through December 2018, that percentage grew to 60%.

A similar trend can be seen across several leading death penalty states, and is especially stark in states with the largest death row populations. From 1976 to 1986, 51% of the people sentenced to death in Texas were people of color; that percentage grew to 75% in the past decade. Of just seven people Texas sent to death row in 2018, all of them were men of color. In California, the percentage increased from 52% to 78%; in Oklahoma, it more than doubled from 28% to 80%.

Finding that people of color are still overrepresented on death row as a whole, and that these discrepancies are getting worse as death sentences decline, the Intercept concluded that “the death penalty is as arbitrary as ever.”

Declining use of the death penalty stems in part from a growing recognition that it is a failed policy.

As The Intercept reported, new death sentences have plummeted from nearly 300 in 1998 to just 43 in 2018. Ten states in the past ten years have abolished the death penalty by legislation or court order, or imposed moratoriums on executions.

This decline in the use of the death penalty reflects a growing body of evidence that capital punishment does not deter crime or increase public safety and is extremely costly, unreliable, geographically arbitrary, and racially biased, The Intercept reports.

The Intercept spent three years compiling a dataset of 7,335 individuals sentenced to death in 29 states and the federal system since 1976. It found that individuals have ultimately been resentenced in 32% of the cases—meaning that “roughly a third of all death penalty prosecutions were flawed in some way that required readjudication.” At least 333 people in the dataset have been released and at least 132 have been exonerated.

Other recent reporting has focused on specific causes of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases. ProPublica reported on the use of testimony from jailhouse snitches—a leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases. Reporters found that nearly a quarter of death row exonerations today (22%) stem from cases in which prosecutors relied on a jailhouse informant. As ProPublica’s Pamela Colloff wrote:

Informants often end up on the stand when other evidence is weak; a case that is based on rigorous forensic work or witness testimony that can be independently corroborated does not need a snitch to paper over the gaps. The most unreliable witnesses, then, may testify in the least sound cases — and in cases in which the stakes are the highest.

Most Americans now favor life as the better punishment for murder.

The percentage of Americans who are generally in favor of the death penalty has fallen to 45-year lows. And when given an explicit alternative, for the first time in at least 30 years, more say life imprisonment with no possibility of parole is a better punishment for murder than the death penalty.

Sixty percent of people chose life sentences over the death penalty, according to a new Gallup poll. That’s up from 45% in 2014. Only 36% selected the death penalty.

Conservatives are increasingly embracing abolition. Former prosecutors and former prison wardens now acknowledge that the death penalty is a failed policy. Hundreds of former and current state and federal prosecutors, former judges, correctional officials, and people who lost loved ones to homicide have called on the Trump administration to halt the executions scheduled for Monday—the first federal executions in nearly two decades.

Former Ohio attorney general Jim Petro wrote that the decline of the death penalty in America “has occurred for good reason.”

Capital punishment is costly, offers no proven deterrent benefit and delays healing for victims’ family members, while also traumatizing correctional officers and risking the execution of innocent people. These flaws are inherent in the system, just as much in the case of the federal death penalty as in the states.