The death penalty has not been shown to deter crime, despite the repeated claim to the contrary by its supporters. “It’s going to make Virginia less safe, less secure,” Jason Miyares, a Republican lawmaker, said of abolition. In fact, states that execute people have consistently higher murder rates than those that do not.
Despite this compelling evidence of the death penalty’s futility, the federal and state governments have put to death more than 1,450 people since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976.
The good news is that its overall use has dropped sharply in recent years. New death sentences are down from a high of 315 in 1996 to 18 in 2020. Annual executions have plummeted, too, from 98 in 1999 to 17 in 2020.
More than half of last year’s executions were for federal crimes, the first time in history that the federal government put more people to death than all the states combined. Credit for this dubious achievement goes to former President Donald Trump, who authorized a spate of executions as the election neared, and then three more after he lost to Joe Biden.
Politicians once calculated that backing the death penalty was an effective electoral strategy to show their tough-on-crime bona fides. But that’s less and less true. Americans’ support for the death penalty, which in the past reached as high as 80 percent, has now fallen to 55 percent, its lowest mark in half a century — part of Americans’ growing awareness of the profound failures and inequities of their criminal justice system.
With Virginia’s ban this week, 23 states now prohibit the death penalty, and 11 more haven’t used it in at least a decade. It’s not a simple partisan issue, either. In several states, Republican lawmakers have joined Democrats in voting to ban capital punishment. In Virginia, some Democrats still supported the practice as recently as last year.
What remains for the defenders of state-sponsored killing? Nothing but cruelty. It’s a tried and true tactic, even among certain Supreme Court justices, to linger on the grisliness of the crimes, as if those who oppose capital punishment are somehow unaware of those facts, or are untroubled by them. Horror stories miss the point. No one disputes that the crimes for which people are sentenced to death are abhorrent and demand justice. But a society that sinks to the level of its worst offenders is not only hypocritical, it also poisons itself with an endless cycle of vengeance.