National support for the death penalty is still in decline. A new Pew poll released last week found that 56 percent of Americans now support the death penalty, a decline of over 20 percent from its peak in 1996. Opposition to it rose to 38 percent. These numbers might still seem good for capital-punishment proponents, even considering the overall trend of decline, but they mask a deeper shift.
On paper, thirty-two states and the federal government currently allow capital punishment. But in practice, the death penalty has been largely abandoned throughout most of the United States. Juries now sentence fewer defendants to death than at any time since the Supreme Court lifted its de facto moratorium in 1976.
Executions have also declined over the same time period, but for different reasons. A major factor is the recent shortage of lethal injection drugs across the country. Many states have also imposed moratoriums until the Supreme Court decides Glossip v. Gross, which could force changes in execution methods nationwide. Neither this nor the lengthy post-conviction appeals process would affect the rate of new death sentences.
Of course, death sentences and executions alike are statistically concentrated in a few states. This includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia in the South, plus Ohio and Missouri in the Midwest and California and Arizona in the West. Even in these states that wield death sentences most frequently, numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show a precipitous decline. Texas juries, for example, sentenced 48 people to death in 1999. In 2009, they only sentenced eight.
Not only are death sentences declining overall and within the most execution-oriented states, the remaining sentences are largely concentrated in a few county-level enclaves. A 2012 study by DePaul University law professor Robert J. Smith examined death sentence and execution statistics in major death-penalty states, including Texas, Florida, Virginia, California, Oklahoma, Arizona, and others. By looking at cases over a five-year period from 2004 to 2009 on a county-by-county level, Smith found significant geographic disparities in the death penalty’s application.
Los Angeles County is only twice the size of [Illinois’s] Cook County, but Los Angeles County sentenced nearly five times as many people to death from 2004 to 2009. [Texas’s] Harris County has roughly one million fewer people than Cook County, but Harris County sentenced almost three times as many people to death. [Arizona’s] Maricopa County is roughly the same size as Harris County, but Maricopa County sentenced thirty-eight people to death while Harris County rendered twenty-one death sentences. [Florida’s] Miami-Dade County, which has a population of approximately 2.5 million, only sentenced four people to death, whereas Oklahoma County, which has a population of approximately 750,000, sentenced eighteen people to death.
The effect is even more dramatic in the aggregate. Of the 3,144 counties or their equivalents in the United States, just 29 counties averaged more than one death sentence a year. “That 1 percent of counties accounts for roughly 44 percent of all death sentences” since 1976, Smith observed. A 2013 report by the Death Penalty Information Center found that 59 counties—fewer than 2 percent of the total—handed down all U.S. death sentences in 2012.