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“This isn’t accomplishing anything” – The US Death Penalty in 2013

19 Dec

On January 16, 2013, Robert Gleason Jnr became the first person to be executed by the American criminal justice system in 2013. He was electrocuted.

A Virginia inmate who pleaded guilty to a 2007 murder, Gleason had also killed two other prisoners while he was serving his sentence. Four US states offer condemned prisoners the option to choose electrocution over lethal injection. Gleason was the first prisoner to choose electrocution since March 2010.

Only 157 death-row electrocutions have taken place out of 1,320 executions since the US death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Gleason’s lawyers had argued he had a long history of mental illness and his condition had deteriorated during a year in solitary confinement.

He repeatedly emphasised that he had waived the appeals process because he knew he would kill again if he was not executed. Governor Bob McDonnell stated that has expressed no remorse for his crimes, and was found competent by the appropriate courts.

The final execution of 2013 in the USA was carried out in Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Johnny Dale Black was executed  on December 17, 2013. He had been convicted of first-degree murder.

According to Oklahoma Corrections representative Jerry Massie, Black’s final words were:

“This isn’t accomplishing anything. It’s just another death, another family destroyed. I love everybody. I love you — you can count on that, Mama.”

In 2013, there were a total of 39 executions in 9 states in America (there were a total of 80 capital sentences imposed in 2013). Just two states, Texas and Florida, were responsible for almost three-fifths of all US executions this year.

A number of prominent capital punishment states, including Louisiana and Tennessee, did not impose a single death sentence in in 2013, while Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abolish capital punishment.

This year was only the second year in almost two decades that America executed fewer than 40 people. Thirty two US states continue to have the death penalty as a sentencing option, while 18 states have abolished capital punishment. The total of executions in America has been falling overall since 1999, when 98 people were executed.

2013 US death penalty graphic

2013 US death penalty graphic

According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s latest annual report, the number of executions declined in 2013. Fewer states passed death sentences, and the number of those of death row decreased year-on year. Richard Dieter, the Centre’s Executive Director has observed that

Twenty years ago, use of the death penalty was increasing. Now it is declining by almost every measure… The recurrent problems of the death penalty have made its application rare, isolated, and often delayed for decades. More states will likely reconsider the wisdom of retaining this expensive and ineffectual practice.”

California’s Death Penalty – On The Way Out?

13 Nov

The death penalty is currently a legal sentence in 37 states in the USA (as well as in the federal criminal justice system). The list of states which retain the death penalty includes America’s most populous state, California. When America voted to re-elect President Barack Obama on November 6, 2012, the state of California also voted to retain the death penalty.

Voters rejected Proposition 34, an initiative which would have replaced the death penalty with a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, albeit by a narrow margin. While 52.8% voted to keep the death penalty, 47.2% voted to abolish it. Proposition 34 also required inmates sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole to work to enable them to pay restitution to victims’ families. It also allocate approximately $30 million per year for three years to police departments, specifically to solve murder and rape cases which remained open. However, the measure was still unsuccessful.

While on the face of it this is a vote for the death penalty, it nevertheless may be indicative of a broader trend of changing attitudes to capital punishment throughout America. When voters expressed a view on capital punishment in California some 34 years earlier, some 71% supported the death penalty.

Legal executions in have been undertaken in California since they first authorised under the state’s Criminal Practices Act of 1851 (with a brief hiatus from 1972 to 1976). Since then, executions have been undertaken by firing squad, hanging, and lethal gas. Since 1993, the preferred method of execution has been lethal injection.

In recent years, however, California’s use of the death penalty is gradually declining. While there are currently 726 inmates on the state’s Death row (which makes it the largest death row in America), the reality is that no prisoner has actually been executed since 2006.California accommodates almost a quarter of the entire death row population in America. It is also noteworthy that figures from the  National Registry of Exonerations confirm that California tops the list of states with wrongful convictions.

Executions were suspended in California in February, 2006 as a result of a federal judge concluding that the state’s execution process was flawed

A condemned prisoner had argued that inadequate training for those administering the death penalty and the poor conditions in the death chamber at San Quentin prison amounted to a “cruel and unusual punishment”. ( The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution lays down that “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted”. TNew procedures were drafted by the California Department of Corrections, and the death chamber was revamped, but the moratorium is due to continue for another year.

A total of 13 people convicted of murder have been executed by the state of California following the resumption of capital punishment after the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Gregg v. Georgia. In 11 of these cases, the method of execution has been lethal injection. The problematic nature of the administration of the death penalty in California is underlined by records of how prisoners on death row have died since 1976:

  • 57 condemned prisoners have died from natural causes
  • 20 condemned prisoners have committed suicide
  • 6 condemned prisoners have died from “other causes”
  • 13 condemned prisoners have actually been executed in California (11 by lethal injection, and two by gas)

The reality, then, is that more prisoners on death row have died from natural causes or from suicide than from the death penalty.

Current opponents of the death penalty in California have located their arguments in the context of the current fiscal austerity. It is estimated that California has spent some $4 billion on the administration of the death penalty since capital punishment resumed in 1977. The state now has an annual expenditure of approximately $184 million on the death penalty. The cost of legal representation, special trials and death row accommodation continues to rise. It is estimated that it will cost a further $1 billion over the next 5 years. It is a continuing paradox that, while millions of dollars are spent on the death penaly each years, the reality is that more death row prisoners die of old age than die due to leathal injection.

Those called upon to administer the death penalty have recorded the immense psychological stresses which it places upon them. One former executioner has spoken of he finally sought help after seeing the dead men he executed sitting on the side of his bed at night.

While it appears that the popular support for the death penalty is California is gradually being eroded, it is also clear that it may take some time for the tipping point in electoral support which will lead to the abolition of the death penalty to be reached.

Prisoners and the Right To Vote in the UK & the USA

4 Nov

“It makes me physically ill even to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison. Frankly, when people commit a crime and go to prison, they should lose their rights, including the right to vote.” 

– David Cameron, during Prime Ministers Question Time, November 3, 2010.

David Cameron’s position on voting rights for prisoners has the merit of consistency. Asked a question in the House of Commons some two years ago about whether the incarceration of convicted prisoners should result in a loss of inmates’ rights, he responded that voting rights for prisoners made him “physically ill”.

Since then, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the UK must end its ban on votes for prisoners after the government lost its ultimate appeal.

David Cameron has now pledged once again at prime minister’s questions that his coalition government would never give the prisoners the right to vote. While government now has around three weeks to decide its response to the European court ruling, the prime minister’s insistence last month that “No one should be under any doubt – prisoners are not getting the vote under this government” leaves little doubt about the substance of that official reaction.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling told the BBC that “It is very clear that most people in the political world in the UK don’t want to give votes to prisoners.”

However, the scale of disenfranchisement in the United States leaves the UK looking positively benevolent. America’s entrenched commitment to mass incarceration and a punitive penal system has long been acknowledged by criminologists. While the nation is home to just 1 in 20 of the world’s population, it imprisons no less than quarter of the whole world’s prison population, with a staggering total of 2.3 million of its citizens behind bars.

One element of American penality will play a key role in the forthcoming presidential election. When voters go the polls this Tuesday, an astonishing total of 5.85 million Americans will be forbidden to exercise the fundamental democratic right to vote. They have been stripped of that right because of what it officially labelled “felon disenfranchisement” – that is, those laws which restricting voting rights for anyone convicted of a criminal offence labelled as a “felony”.

Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? 5.85 million people have no say in the
Presidential Election, due to felony disenfranchisement
(creative commons licence)

A range of state laws bar both felons and in some cases ex-felons from the right to vote. Approximately three quarters of those who are disenfranchised are no longer even behind bars, but are subject to probation supervision or on parole.

Surprisingly for a UK observer, most disenfranchised American citizens are not actually in prison. Almost half of the total number of those barred from voting have already served their full sentence, and are no longer subject to the supervision of the correctional services.

According to the Sentencing Project, ex-offenders in the eleven US states which disenfranchise people after they have served their sentences comprise almost 45 percent of the total of the population denied the right to vote. According to research by the Sentencing Project, an American criminal justice campaigning group which promoting reforms in sentencing policy:

“The number of people disenfranchised due to a felony conviction has escalated dramatically in recent decades as the population under criminal justice supervision has increased. There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, and over 5.85 million in 2010.”

In short, 1 of every 40 adults of the USA’s total population of voting age is denied the right to vote due to a current (or previous) conviction for a felony. By my calculations, if the UK was to disenfranchise offenders at a similar rate, we would deny the right to vote around 1.15 million UK offenders and ex-offenders.

The dynamic of race plays a significant role felony disenfranchisement. The harsh reality that US imprisonment rates are disproportionately higher for African American men may hardly come as a shock, considering that America was embroiled in a civil war over the continuation of  slavery until just two lifetimes ago.

African American males are imprisoned at a rate of six times that of their white counterparts. More than two million black citizens are subject to the control of the correctional system, whether in custody, on probation, or on parole. This systematic network of what has been labelled as “racialized social control” (Alexander 2011:20) also encompasses voting rights.

It is astonishing to learn that now less that 1 in every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised. This is a rate over four times higher than the rate for non-African Americans.

In three states (Florida, Kentucky and Virginia), more than one in five black citizens is denied the right to vote. The disproportionate representation of African Americans within the US penal system means that felony disenfranchisement has a significant impact on the representation of African Americans in the US political system.

There is some evidence that African Americans vote predominantly for Democratic candidates. In a presidential election which promises to be as tightly fought as the current one, African American disenfranchisement may significantly impact the Democratic vote.

Abraham Lincoln’s oft-quoted description of democracy in the United States as embodying “government of the people, by the people, for the people” rings somewhat hollow to almost six million citizens denied the right to vote.

References

ALEXANDER, M. (2011) ‘The New Jim Crow’, The American Prospect, pp. 19-21, Washington: The Justice Policy Institute.

UGGEN, C., SHANNON, S. & MANZA, J. (2012), State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010. Washington DC: The Sentencing Project.

WOOD, E. (2008), Restoring the right to vote. New York: Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.