The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) is a non-profit organization that studies the use of capital punishment in the United States. The DPIC does not hold a position of its own on the use of the death penalty but simply releases reports on its use throughout the 50 states. And, according to its report released in October 2018, support for the death penalty in the United States is the lowest it’s been in decades.
Abolishing the Death Penalty?
According to the DPIC report, executions have remained below 30 per year, and fewer than 50 defendants have received death sentences for four years in a row—the DPIC touts this as “generational lows.”
While those statistics are the first thing you see when you view the report online, what might be even more striking is that in 2018, 57% of the death sentences handed down came from just four states: Ohio, Florida, Texas, and California.
Add to this the fact that a new Gallup poll has revealed that less than half (48%) of all Americans feel the death penalty is applied fairly and that Washington state became the 20th state to abolish the use of the death penalty just last month, some argue that we are seeing a trend that may indeed lead to the abolishment of the death penalty on a federal level.
The DPIC study also claims that the downtrend in support for the death penalty is analogous to that seen in 1972 when a moratorium was placed on the death penalty as the result of the Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia. The DPIC says in its report that, “Fewer new death sentences were imposed in the past decade than in the decade leading up to Furman…” The report also goes to state that the number of death sentences handed down this year shows an 85% reduction from the 1990s, when over 300 death sentences were handed down yearly.
While the downtrend in support for the death penalty cannot be denied, asserting that it portends a complete federal abolishment could be in the near future is a reach. Yes, the numbers are lower than those we saw in 1972. However, the Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia did not rule the death penalty on its face was unconstitutional. In fact, only two Supreme Court Justices on that case stated in their opinions that they believed the death penalty itself was unconstitutional. The ruling, however, did not declare the death penalty unconstitutional, but declared that it could not be implemented in a discriminatory or arbitrary manner. Thus, the door was left wide open for states to simply rethink and rewrite their death penalty statutes in order to comply with the Court’s ruling. So, even though support for the death penalty in 1972 was significantly low, the death penalty was not abolished.
One other major factor is the Court itself. If the 1972 Supreme Court Justices were on the bench today, then maybe the abolishment of the death penalty really would be in our sights. However, the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court is far, far more conservative. Even though we may have a lower support among citizens for the death penalty and fewer people being sentenced to death, it is highly unlikely that the death penalty will be declared unconstitutional by the nine justices who currently oversee the Highest Court in the Land.