Why is the death penalty still in force in the United States and why is its use there in decline?

I’m currently reading a fascinating book called “Enlightenment Now” by the American professor of psychology Steven Pinker. In the chapter on Democracy, he explores the odd position of the United States in relation to the use of capital punishment.

Over 100 countries have now abolished the use of the death penalty (including all European nations except Belarus) and, while some 90 countries retain the penalty in their law, most have not put anyone to death in at least a decade.

However, the USA is in the top five for the countries that still execute its citizens, together with China and Iran (which kill more than 1,000 annually) plus Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Why is this?

Pinker points out that in the USA, “other than for a few federal crimes like terrorism and treason, the death penalty is decided upon by individual states, voted on by legislators who are close to their constituents, and in many states sought and approved by prosecutors and judges who have to stand for reelection”. As he puts it: “The reason the United States is a death penalty outlier is that it is, in one sense, too democratic.”

However, Pinker explains that seven states have repealed the death penalty in the past decade, an additional 16 have moratoria, and 30 have not executed anyone in five years. He provides a list of reasons why, in his view, “The American death penalty is not so much being abolished as falling part, piece by piece.” Indeed he believes that worldwide “today the death penalty is on death row”.

I hope he is right.


XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>