Momentum is building among the states to put an end to one of our country’s most barbaric law enforcement practices—the death penalty. While this progress is a welcome step in the right direction, it’s no replacement for long overdue action at the national level.
Earlier this month, the New Hampshire State Senate passed a bill to end the death penalty in the Granite State. Governor Chris Sununu has indicated that he’ll veto the legislation, but there are enough votes to override him. If that happens, New Hampshire will become the 21st state (along with the District of Columbia) to ban the death penalty outright. In addition, four states have put a moratorium on the death penalty, including California, which did so earlier this year, ending all current death sentences though the practice hasn’t been outlawed for future administrations.
In addition to this traction at the state level, many 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are voicing their support for ending the death penalty. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, Senator Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Congressman Beto O’Rourke and Senator Cory Booker have all called for the abolition or suspension of the death penalty at the national level. Senators Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand have applauded California’s moratorium, and former Washington governor Jay Inslee played an instrumental role in ending his state’s capital punishment program.
With so many states curtailing the death penalty and candidates for the nation’s highest office calling for an end to the practice, it seems unfathomable that the U.S. would actually be increasing its overall executions—but that is exactly what’s happened. Despite global capital punishment numbers falling by 31 percent in 2018, the U.S. had 25 executions, which continues an upward trend since 2016. That means the U.S. killed more prisoners than nations such as Iran, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, and Pakistan.
Many conservatives argue that the death penalty is a strong deterrent against severe crimes, such as murder, but the experts disagree. In fact, 88 percent of criminologists believe that capital punishment “does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment.”
Additionally, proponents argue that the death penalty is reserved for those who clearly committed heinous crimes. While that may be true in theory, in practice this simply isn’t the case.
Since 1973, 165 Americans on death row have been found innocent of the crimes they were accused of committing and either pardoned, exonerated, or had their charges dropped. In 2018, innocent Americans spent a record 1,600 years in prison due to wrongful incarceration, bringing the grand total of years lost since 1989 to more than 21,290. And while there is no way of knowing exactly how many innocent Americans have been executed, the Death Penalty Information Center points to more than a dozen individuals who have been put to death despite likely being innocent. Additionally, governments in various states have issued posthumous pardons for prisoners who were wrongly executed, many of whom were individuals of color or with developmental disabilities.
Sadly, it’s not surprising that America has fallen behind much of the world on the death penalty, as President Trump has long been a proponent. After all, the president said he was “not thrilled” when California announced its moratorium on capital punishment. He also said he’d be “most excited” to use the death penalty on drug dealers and praised Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent drug war, which has led to more than 12,000 deaths and was dubbed a “human rights calamity” by Amnesty International.
Countries around the world have been abandoning capital punishment at a staggering rate since the 1990s. America is one of only 20 nations on earth, and the only one in the West, that still permits the death penalty.
Even one wrongful death at the hands of the government is a clear moral failure. It’s long past time that the United States catch up with the rest of the world and end the barbaric, inhumane practice that is the death penalty.
Dan King is a senior contributor at Young Voices, where he covers civil liberties and criminal justice reform. His work has appeared at Reason, The American Conservative, The Week, and The Weekly Standard.