Earlier this week, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) released its annual year-end report finding a 12 percent decrease in executions in 2010 compared to last year: 46 people were executed this year, compared to 52 in 2009. Most of the executions were carried out in the South. In addition, the report calculates that the number of death sentences in 2010 would continue to be over 50 percent lower than in the 1990s.
The report also points out that the exorbitant cost of the death penalty has played a major role in changing public opinion:
In a recent national poll conducted by Lake Research Partners, 61% of U.S. voters chose various alternative sentences over the death penalty as the proper punishment for murder. Only 33% chose the death penalty. A plurality of voters (39%) selected life in prison without parole coupled with restitution by the defendant to the victim's family as the most appropriate penalty. The economy clearly was on the public's mind, as fully 65% in the same poll supported replacing the death penalty and using the money saved for crime prevention. (emphasis ours).
DPIC's report points to Illinois, which hasn't executed anyone for 12 years, but continues death penalty prosecutions at the cost of $100 million over seven years. Earlier this year, the ACLU of Northern California reported the staggering cost of that state's machinery of death: $137 million each year. Permanent imprisonment for all those currently on death row would cost just $11 million.
Two other factors over the past year contributed to the decline in the popularity of the use of capital punishment. First, problems continue to plague the lethal injection system. This year, a nationwide shortage of a key drug used in executions, sodium thiopental, made some states scramble to find the drug elsewhere. Arizona got its non-FDA-approved supply from the U.K., and California tried to do the same.
Secondly, the public remains concerned that innocent people may be sentenced to death, or worse, have already been executed. The latter was exactly what happened in the cases of Texas's executions of Cameron Todd Willingham and Claude Jones. This past October, Anthony Graves was released from Texas's death row after being imprisoned for 16 years for a crime he didn't commit. Troy Davis, whose guilt is also in doubt, remains on Georgia's death row.
The events of the past year have provided additional evidence that the death penalty system is broken, and states across the country are re-examining its use. Our wish for 2011: abolition of the death penalty.