BY AT least one important measure, the Trump administration's simplistic get-tough-on-crime rhetoric did not move the country backward in the president's first year: The death penalty, which Americans once favored at near-consensus rates, was a historically rare punishment. For those of us who would prefer to see no executions, this is as much a call to continue the argument as it is a cause for celebration.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center's annual report, 2017 saw the second-lowest number of death sentences since 1972, with 39. Though 2016 saw only 31, these numbers nevertheless mark a steep decline since a peak of 315 in 1996. 2017 also saw the second-lowest number of executions — 23 — since 1991, outpacing 2016 by only three. Executions peaked at 98 in 1999 and have also dropped precipitously since. Notorious execution states such as Texas and Oklahoma had a relatively quiet 2017. These trends mean that the number of people on death row fell for the 17th straight year, from about 2,900 to about 2,800.
There is reason to believe these figures foreshadow more of the same. A few more states this last year reformed their justice systems to be less primed to produce death sentences. Alabama barred judges from overriding juries recommending life sentences. Florida shifted policy to require jury unanimity to sentence a convict to death.
Not all the news was good. Alabama and other states also pushed to speed up the execution process, raising serious doubts about whether they would offer condemned people sufficient chance to make their cases. Moreover, certain places stuck out from the national picture, sentencing prisoners to death at unusual rates. Three counties, one each in Arizona, California and Nevada, accounted for a third of all death sentences in 2017.
As with other years, 2017 also brought more death-row exonerations. Four people whom the state had condemned to die were freed. While these were positive stories, they reflect the reality that others placed on death row — or already executed — almost certainly were unjustly convicted.
The inherent risk of executing innocent people is probably one reason that, as the report notes, an October Gallup poll found that only 55 percent of Americans support the death penalty, the lowest reading on the question since 1972. Another reason, we hope, is that American society is simply becoming less tolerant of extinguishing the precious spark of life, acknowledging inherent human dignity even in those who failed to honor it in others.
No matter the reason, it is heartening to see the country become steadily more humane.
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