January 5, 2010

2009: Bad year for death penalty

The writing is on the wall: Death sentences are at an all-time low, more states are abolishing capital punishment altogether, and -- in what is being called a "tectonic shift" -- the American Law Institute announced it will wash its hands of the enterprise.

Adam Liptak, the New York Times' astute legal analyst, says that of all of last year's developments, the American Law Institute action is the most critical. The influential institute, comprised of 4,000 judges, lawyers and law professors, created the modern framework for the death penalty in its 1962 Model Penal Code. Its vote to abandon its capital punishment structure followed a study finding that the system was plagued with systemic problems, including racial disparities, risks of executing innocent people, and exorbitant costs.

A campaign to have the institute take a formal stance against the death penalty failed, Liptak said in yesterday's column. Instead, the institute voted to disavow the structure it had created "in light of the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment."

Meanwhile, New Mexico last year joined 14 other states that have abolished the death penalty in favor of the option of life without the possibility of parole. And although the number of executions was up nationwide from the previous year (from 37 to 52), fewer new death sentences were imposed than in any year since the United States reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

That may reflect not only dwindling popular support for capital punishment, but also the high costs during these tough economic times. The ever-rational state of California, which bucked the national trend despite an especially acute economic crisis, is spending an estimated $137 million per year on the death enterprise not including an estimated $400 million for a new facility to house its 690 death row prisoners, Time magazine reported.

Summing up the current pendulum shift, Time noted: "Urgently important to fewer and fewer people, yet less and less compelling to the country at large, the death penalty keeps sputtering along, dwindling as the years go by."

Graphics credit: Finishing-school (Creative Commons license)
Double hat tips: Tim D. and Gretchen W

1 comment:

DJ Fatima said...

This is a very timely article, given the execution of Akmal Shaik, a British national executed on December 29th 2009 in China, despite clear evidence that he suffered from a serious mental illness and did no understand the preceedings of his 30 minute trial. Requests by Akmal's lawyers for a mental health assessment were refused and the presiding judge laughed openly at Akmal's incoherent statements.