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Death Penalty Decline Continues

Anna Arceneaux,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Capital Punishment Project
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December 21, 2011

As 2011 comes to end, we’re taking a look back at the year in criminal justice. Over the next few days, we’ll run a series of blog posts on the developments, good and bad, that have shaped our justice system – from overincarceration and sentencing policy to the treatment of prisoners and capital punishment. Read the series here.

Another year gone by, another huge step towards abolition of the death penalty.

As we close out 2011, we have a lot to be excited about. We continue to see a steep decline in death sentences and executions in the United States, a trend we’ve observed over the last few years. Public support for the death penalty is at an all-time low, as more people recognize safe sentencing alternatives to the death penalty like life without parole and realize that the exorbitant costs of seeking the death penalty are simply not worth it.

The numbers don’t lie. The Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report noted that only 78 new death sentences were handed down in the past year – the first time in the modern era of capital punishment that the number dropped below 100. Forty-three people were executed this year, down from 224 just 10 years ago.

Illinois became the fourth state in four years to abolish the death penalty, joining the company of New Jersey, New York, and New Mexico. Within two weeks, abolition had already saved the state $4.7 million.

Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon issued a moratorium on all executions in the state, refusing to play any role in a “compromised and inequitable system.”

The European Commission promised just yesterday that it would impose tighter controls on the export of certain drugs to prevent their use in capital punishment.

But 2011 also brought some shameful reminders that the fight is far from over. Georgia executed Troy Davis despite serious concerns about his guilt and overwhelming calls to spare his life from all over the world. Troy’s death proved that there remains a strong risk of executing the innocent. But it will not be in vain, as we continue to shout, “We are Troy Davis” and resolve to work even harder for abolition.

The North Carolina legislature took a great step backwards when it voted to repeal its historic Racial Justice Act (RJA), passed just two years ago. Fortunately, Governor Bev Perdue vetoed the repeal. It remains to be seen whether the legislature has the votes to overturn her veto. Meanwhile, the first RJA hearing will begin on January 30th in the case of ACLU client Marcus Robinson, where the ACLU will have the opportunity to expose the racial injustices that continue to plague our death penalty system.

We have our work cut out for us in the years ahead, to be sure. But we’re headed in the right direction. We hope that 2012 sees many other states following in Illinois’ footsteps, as there is a momentum for abolition like never before. I look forward to the year when I can report that we had no new death sentences and no executions. At this point, it’s not a matter of if, but when.

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