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A Note on Death Sentence Rates

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The DPIC report to be released tomorrow, noted in the previous post, will also make a big deal about the number of death sentences per year being much lower than it was at the peak of 1996.  The regular drumbeat from the other side talking about sentencing and incarceration numbers as if they were independent of crime rates continues to both amaze and dismay.  Even worse is that people who should know better take this seriously.

Instead of the irrelevant number of death sentences, we should begin by looking at the number of sentences relative to the number of homicides.  Homicides rates have dropped nearly in half since the mid-90s, due in part to the tough sentencing that our opponents so strenuously opposed.  Using a two-year lag (death sentences over murders of two years earlier), the number of death sentences per 1000 murders this year was 38% of what it was in 1996.  That is a large drop, but not nearly as large as the irrelevant number you get comparing the simple count of sentences.

Why the drop?  Well, we have always said that the death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst.  In the early days after the restoration of capital punishment, it was not too unusual to see a death sentence for a simple robbery in which the victim was killed with no other major aggravating circumstances.  That is much less common today.  Prosecutors are more selective in seeking the death penalty, and juries are more selective in imposing it.

The other side has always said that is how it should be.  Now that it increasingly is that way, they cite that change as evidence that America is turning away from the death penalty.

Update:  David Savage has this story in the LA Times.

Update 2:  The Wall Street Journal, disappointingly, completely blows it by uncritically regurgitating the DPIC's spin.  Not a single mention of the drop in the murder rate over the same period.

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This is exactly the stunt abolitionists pull with lethal injection. For years, they demanded that, if the country was so barbaric that it wouldn't abandon the death penalty altogether, at least it could show a shred of humanity by adopting a less horrible way of administering it, that being lethal injection.

The country largely did so, and now what we hear is that the loudly demanded lethal injection is.....barbaric.

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