HRNW REPORT: A recent analysis of last year’s data on the death penalty worldwide brought news of two opposing trends: while 2015 saw a disturbing surge in executions globally, here in the United States executions and death sentences both reached historic lows.The United States remained among the top five executing countries in the world, but the data also showed that despite the increase in executions globally, in 2015 the United States was responsible for the fewest number of death sentences since 1977, and the fewest executions since 1991. Those executions that did occur were isolated to just six states.
There was an even more dramatic data point: for the first time ever, a majority of U.S. states – 27, to be exact – have either abolished the death penalty or simply have not carried out executions for a decade or more.
While it’s true that the majority of states still have the death penalty on the books, what we have seen in recent years is a growing uneasiness about actually implementing it. And with good reason: the system of capital punishment is simply unworkable.
Some of these states have gone decades, even more than half a century, without an execution. New Hampshire’s last execution was in 1939, and Kansas hasn’t put a prisoner to death since 1965. Here, the death penalty has simply fallen away as communities have come to the conclusion that they don’t need to resort to such extremes in the name of justice.
Yet only 18 states have formally abolished the practice; views in other states remain deeply divided. In some, state officials still try to resume executions but are unable to find a workable system that complies with the Constitution’s eighth amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.
This should not come as a surprise. Though only 13 percent of the U.S. population is black, African-Americans make up 42 percent of those on death row. Of the 28 prisoners put to death in the U.S. in 2015, 60 percent were either black or Hispanic, groups that make up less than 30 percent of the U.S. population. Some cases remain mired in claims that racism led to unfair verdicts. Some of those executed contended they suffered from intellectual disability – like Warren Hill, executed by Georgia despite seven mental health experts agreeing with his claim. In Virginia, Salvadoran national Alfredo Prieto was put to death in defiance of international law.
We’ve also seen the execution process itself go horribly wrong. Several states have carried out executions described as “botched,” in which human beings were subjected to unthinkable agony before dying. Some states have responded by putting executions on hold because they just can’t find a “humane” way to kill a human being.
The majority of countries of the world have already abolished capital punishment. By stubbornly holding on to the death penalty, the United States undermines its claim that it stands for human rights. There can be no “improving the system” – the system is broken beyond repair and must be abandoned once and for all.
Which is why all 50 states and the federal government must repeal capital punishment. The trend of diminishing use of the death penalty in the United States has held strong for years and shows no signs of abating. In more than half of U.S. states, the system has either been abolished or has ground to a halt.
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