The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Death sentences are in decline. It’s time to do away with them entirely.


THE COUNTRY took great strides this year away from its decades-long anti-crime crackdown. Congress passed a major criminal justice reform bill, and by year’s end it became clear the nation would once again hit near-historic low numbers of death sentences and executions. But as heartened as Americans should be by this progress, it also highlights how much change has yet to happen.

Twenty-five inmates were executed in 2018, representing the fourth consecutive year the nation killed fewer than 30 people. Forty-two people were sentenced to death, up only slightly from 2017’s 39, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that releases an authoritative annual report. Though the increase is not cause for celebration, it still represents a massive decline from the nation’s 1996 high of 315.

The overall trend is unmistakable: “Death sentences have declined by half in the last four years compared to the previous four years,” the center found, and the numbers are far lower than in the 1990s. As more prisoners were exonerated or obtained clemency, the number of people facing active death sentences dipped below 2,500 for the first time in a quarter-century.

The news was not all encouraging. Two death-row inmates were exonerated this year, once again highlighting the imperfect application of the ultimate punishment. One of them, in Florida, was given a death sentence despite his jury failing to come to consensus on the punishment. Florida has reformed its system, but, shockingly, there are still many places that allow judges to impose death sentences without unanimous jury recommendations; about 1 in 7 death sentences in 2018 were the result of such a procedure. Split jury recommendations led to death sentences in three cases this year.

With depressing predictability, there were signs of mental illness or intellectual disability in too many of those sentenced to death or executed in 2018. According to the center’s count, there was “significant evidence of mental illness” in at least 11 executed inmates.

Similar considerations persuaded Washington state’s supreme court to strike down the death penalty within its borders, finding that the punishment “is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner,” making it an impermissibly “cruel punishment.” That move means that 23 states now have either no death penalty or a governor’s moratorium on its use.

Meanwhile, death sentences and executions were concentrated in a pack of states in the South and the Great Plains. Traditionally, the death penalty has not been a red state-blue state issue. But, as with so many matters of policy and culture, the presence of the death penalty may become a dividing line separating the nation.

We hope any such distinction would not be a durable one. Extinguishing a human life is the gravest action a government can take. The punishment is also expensive, poorly applied and unnecessary to deter crime. It is past time every state did away with it.

Read more:

George F. Will: Abolish the death penalty

Elizabeth Bruenig: The pope’s death penalty announcement reminds us what is pure and holy

The Post’s View: The Parkland shooter should not face the death penalty

Bob Taft and Joseph E. Kernan: End the death penalty for mentally ill criminals

The Post’s View: Another year in death