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Death penalty sentences and executions drop to historic lows

Death Penalty Information Center

A study by the Death Penalty Information Center found that death sentences and executions dropped to historic lows in 2016.

According to a press release from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), juries imposed the fewest death sentences in the modern era of U.S. capital punishment, since the Supreme Court declared existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972.

The report showed that the expected 30 new death sentences in 2016 represent a 39 percent decline from last year’s already 40-year low of 49 percent, and the 20 executions carried out this year marked the lowest number in a quarter century.

“America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment. While there may be fits and starts and occasional steps backward, the long-term trend remains clear,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “Whether it’s concerns about innocence, costs, and discrimination, availability of life without parole as a safe alternative, or the questionable way in which states are attempting to carry out executions, the public grows increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty each year.”

Only five states in 2016 imposed more than one death sentence, the report found: California imposed nine; Ohio and Texas imposed four; Alabama imposed three and Florida imposed two. And only five states carried out executions this year, the fewest number to do so since 1983. Georgia, with nine, and Texas with seven, accounted for 80 percent of all the executions conducted in the U.S. in 2016.

According to the press release, DPIC’s review of the 20 people executed in 2016 indicated that at least 60 percent of them showed significant evidence of mental illness, brain impairment, and/or low intellectual functioning. This suggests that, in spite of the constitutional requirement that the death penalty be reserved for the “worst of the worst” offenders, states continued to execute prisoners whose mental illness or intellectual disabilities are similar to impairments the Court has said should make a person ineligible for the death penalty.