The Death Penalty is Not a National Problem

Janell Ross rounds up evidence that the use of the death penalty may be in retreat in the U.S.. Being strongly against capital punishment, I am pleased at developments. But death penalty opponents will not get to abolition if we strategize under the framing that it is something the “United States” does (as if often said, in contrast to all other Western developed nations).

In fact, the most important thing to know about the death penalty is that it is something only a small number of states do. If one state — Texas — abolished the death penalty its prevalence would drop by over a third (Texas has executed 503 of the 1342 people who have been put to death since the 1976 restoration of capital punishment). More broadly, as Ross notes, southern states today execute four times as many people as the rest of the states do combined.

What Americans as whole think about the death penalty therefore doesn’t matter much. What matters is what people in Texas and Florida and Virginia think about the death penalty. Those are the hearts and minds that must be changed for this practice to end in this country.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.