Why and How To Abolish the Death Penalty in the United States

Campaign To End The Death Penalty — On a Yellow Banner

For 17 years, there were no federal executions in the U.S.

For the first time in history, more people support abolishing the death penalty than support using it.

And yet, the Trump Administration executed 13 people in 2020 alone.

While human rights activists have been protesting the death penalty for decades, this unprecedented number of federal executions ignited a resurgence of activism and awareness around the topic of the death penalty.

We created this guide to give context to the death penalty, why people are advocating for an end to capital punishment, and how to realistically enact change:

The Death Penalty Around the World

According to Amnesty International, there were at least 657 executions in 20 countries in 2019, down by 5% from 2018 (at least 690 executions).

It’s the lowest number of executions that Amnesty International has recorded in at least a decade.

In 2019, there were at least 2,307 new death sentences in 56 countries, and 2,531 were reported in 2018. At least 26,604 total people had been sentenced to death globally at the end of 2019.

The countries with the most executions in 2019: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and the United States.

As of January 2021, 107 countries had abolished the death penalty around the world. In 1975, only 16 countries had. 

The Death Penalty in the United States

Under the Trump Administration, for the first time ever, the federal government executed more people than all states combined in a year.

In 2020, the federal government executed 10 people, and states executed 7 people. 

Since 1950, the federal government has executed 26 people — meaning more than a third of federal executions in the last 50 years occurred in a single year: 2020.

Meanwhile, there is a larger trend of declining execution rates in the U.S. 22 states have already abolished the death penalty, 3 have issued a statewide moratorium on executions, and 2 haven’t executed anyone in 10 years.

Reasons Why the U.S. Should Abolish the Death Penalty: 

1. The death penalty is irreversible, and the margin of error is unacceptably high. 

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, for every 9 people executed, 1 person on death row has been exonerated.

172 total people have been exonerated and released from death row since 1973.

Perjury and official misconduct are the leading causes of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases.

In 2018, a record 111 exonerations involved witnesses who lied on the stand or falsely accused the defendant.

In that same year, misconduct by police, prosecutors, or both was involved in 79% of homicide exonerations. 

2. Rather than deterring crime, the death penalty exacerbates a cycle of violence.

After decades of research, there is no evidence that the death penalty is more effective than life imprisonment in reducing crime.

Studies have shown that murder rates, including murders of police officers, are consistently higher in states that have the death penalty, while states that abolished the death penalty have the lowest rates of police officers killed in the line of duty.

And law enforcement officials agree. In a 2009 survey, police chiefs around the country prioritized the death penalty last for reducing violent crime, below increasing the number of police officers, reducing drug abuse, and creating a better economy.

They said it was one of the most inefficient uses of taxpayer dollars to fight crime.

And rather than a means of justice for victims, the death penalty extends trauma, creates even more victims, and introduces another wave of violence.

"The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it."

— Amnesty International 

3. The death penalty is discriminatory and disproportionately impacts people of color, people with mental illnesses, and low-income individuals. 

People of color are more likely to be prosecuted for capital murder, sentenced to death, and executed — especially if the victim in the case is white.

African Americans make up 42% of people on death row and 34% of those executed, but only 13% of the population is Black.

75% of executions for murder were in cases with white victims. In Georgia, people convicted of killing white victims are 17 times more likely to be executed than those convicted of killing Black victims.

Mental health experts estimate at least 20% of people on death row have a serious mental illness. 

The death penalty is mostly imposed on poor people who cannot afford to hire an effective lawyer, and are often appointed one who is underpaid, overworked, and inexperienced in death penalty cases. 

4. The death penalty is expensive, and both the use of and public support for it are declining.

The death penalty costs taxpayers more than life imprisonment without parole. It’s an expensive government program that is no more effective at deterring violent crime.

In 2016, public support for the use of the death penalty dropped below 50% for the first time in 45 years — more people now support abolishing the death penalty than ever before. 

In 2020, Colorado became the 22nd state in the U.S. to abolish the death penalty. There were the fewest new death sentences since 1973, and the fewest total executions since 1991. State executions were the lowest in 37 years.

How To Get Involved in the Fight to Abolish the Death Penalty

A yellow banner reads "Campaign to end the death penalty"
Campaign To End The Death Penalty / Photo by Steve Rhodes, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Sign this petition to end the death penalty:

On January 17th, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Shane Claiborne and other activists at Death Penalty Action will be visiting the Supreme Court, the U.S. Congress, and the White House. They will be "asking each of them to take concrete steps to abolish the death penalty" and to "demolish the federal death chamber" in Terre Haute, Indiana.

These activists are asking people to sign their petition to communicate the number of people who "oppose executions based on moral, faith, economic, and other pragmatic reasons" and believe "the death penalty is a failed public policy."

They will hand-deliver the petition to President Biden, Attorney General Garland, the U.S. Congress, and U.S. Supreme Court & Federal Judiciary, in the hopes of bringing an end to capital punishment in the United States.

Sign the petition ahead of their January 17th visit.

Help abolish the death penalty at the federal level:

Call 1-844-USA-0234 and enter your zip code to be connected with your representatives to tell them you want to see the death penalty abolished.

Ask President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to call a moratorium on executions, and an end to the federal death penalty.

Help get rid of the death penalty at the state level:

Look up your state’s specific laws regarding the death penalty at deathpenaltyinfo.org

Call your governor and state officials and tell them you want your state to be the next to abolish the death penalty.

Support organizations working to abolish the death penalty:

Death Penalty Action is leading the campaign to end the death penalty in the U.S. They provide resources, support, and help create educational and direct action events.

The Equal Justice Initiative provides effective legal counsel to people on death row, and is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States.

"The question about the death penalty in America is not whether people deserve to die for crimes they commit. The real question is: Do we deserve to kill?"

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative

→ Read more quotes about abolishing the death penalty

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December 6, 2021 3:13 PM
December 31, 2021
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