The State of the Death Penalty in 2017

By Shane Claiborne 1-12-2017
Image by javacolleen / flickr.com

2016 was a landmark year in the movement to end the death penalty. The U.S. had the lowest number of executions, 20, in 25 years — down 28 percent from 2015. And states imposed the fewest death sentences, 30, since the Supreme Court struck down the nation’s death penalty laws in 1972 — down 39 percent from 2015. For comparison, in 1996, there were 315 death sentences.

As the death penalty continues to collapse, we see the arbitrariness of it even more clearly. Of the roughly 3,000 counties in the United States, only 27 imposed death sentences this past year. A zip code can determine who lives and dies.

And one more record worth noting: For the first time in more than 40 years, no single state imposed more than 10 executions. In fact, there were only five states that executed anyone at all in 2016.

Just two states (Texas and Georgia) accounted for 80 percent of the executions this past year. Even America’s deadliest state when it comes to executions — Texas — had the fewest executions in more than two decades, and set unprecedented record of only four new death sentences this past year. Granted, Georgia was the exception, setting a record the other direction by killing more people than it has since the 1950s, but juries in Georgia did not impose a single death sentence in 2016 (or 2015). So this is big.

For the first time in a generation, Pew Research Center found that less than half of Americans favor capital punishment. State-level polls confirm that support for the death penalty continues to decline across nearly every demographic category.

This is the time to pull the final plug on the death penalty in America.

That’s why we are about to set another record: On Jan. 16-17, hundreds of us will gather at the Supreme Court. We will hear from voices of experience — survivors of death row who were wrongfully convicted, families of the executed, and the growing number of murder victims family members who have found better ways forward than execution. After the words, we will put our bodies on the line, marching to the Supreme Court and calling for our highest court to stop executions, once and for all.

We march on Jan. 17 because it is the 40th anniversary of the first "modern-era" execution, after our courts ruled in favor of the death penalty following a decade-long moratorium. On that day, Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in Utah in revenge for his murders of Max Jenson and Ben Bushnell. Since then there have been 1,442 other executions. We will hold 40 signs, one for each year since 1977, with the names of those executed each year. We will also carry roses for the victims — both those who have been murdered and those who have been executed — declaring that violence is the disease … not the cure.

And we will kneel in prayer that God would help us end this terrible practice of trying to kill to show that killing is wrong. Because it is illegal to assemble on the steps of the Supreme Court, we will likely set one final record — the most people arrested protesting capital punishment in America. But what we want is not just another record. We want to make history. We want to make capital punishment history. And we will not stop until the executions stop.

Shane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian and a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community in Philadelphia. His newest book is Executing Grace: Why It is Time to Put the Death Penalty to Death.

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