The Year in Death

Sunday, December 31, 2006

THE YEAR 2006 saw the fewest executions in the United States in a decade, 53. The use of capital punishment has been dropping since 1999, when 98 people were executed. The number of new death sentences is also falling precipitously, according to data from the Death Penalty Information Center, and the number of people on death row is dropping off as well. At least for now, capital punishment remains in retreat.

Perhaps the most striking indicator of this retreat is the degree to which executions are becoming a local phenomenon. While the preponderance of states have a death penalty, very few use it as a routine feature of their criminal justice systems. This year, 14 states carried out executions, but only six of them -- Texas, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma and Virginia -- carried out more than one. Together, these states accounted for 85 percent of executions this year. All by itself, Texas, which executed 24 people, accumulated 45 percent. Over the previous three years, the leading six states for executions accounted for between 70 and 83 percent of executions annually. The less the death penalty gets used, the more it becomes a creature of its heartland: the South, and Texas especially.

Although 38 states and the federal government have the death penalty on their books, only 18 states have executed more than 10 people since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Many states with laws that permit capital punishment use it only rarely -- such as Maryland -- and some don't use it at all.

Now is a good time to push for repeal of death penalty laws in states outside the region truly committed to its use. Crime and murder rates, though increasing, remain low. Many Americans are rightly concerned by the rash of wrongful convictions, including those of death row inmates who have been exonerated. The death penalty's decline should be translated into policies that will prevent its easy re-emergence if circumstances change.

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