Special Briefing: The Politics Behind the US Flip on Capital Punishment

Special Briefing: The Politics Behind the US Flip on Capital Punishment

Why you should care

Because it’s a life-or-death issue.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

What happened? Attorney General William Barr announced Thursday that the U.S. government would resume executing prisoners, ending a 16-year virtual moratorium on the federal death penalty. The first execution is scheduled to take place in December, and although only four more are in line, capital punishment appears set to reemerge as a hot-button issue in American politics. Democratic presidential hopefuls — most of whom oppose it — were quick to criticize the Justice Department’s decision, and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley even pledged to introduce legislation banning the federal punishment, saying it “has no place in a just society.”

Gettyimages 1155782693

US Attorney General William Barr attends the Summit on Combating Anti-Semitism at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, July 15, 2019.

Source SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

Why does it matter? Executions in the U.S. plummeted from 98 in 1999 to just 25 last year, nearly all of them enforced on the state level (only three people have been executed by federal authorities since 1988). Currently, 29 states feature that form of punishment, though nearly a dozen haven’t put anyone to death in more than a decade. But while public opinion has also begun to steadily turn against the practice, more than half the population still supports it. That’s why it’s unclear whether abolishing the death penalty, as several Democratic candidates have pledged to do if elected, is a viable political platform: According to a fresh NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, only 36 percent of Americans believe it’s a good idea (out of Democrats, 55 percent feel that way).

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

Mixed picture? While President Donald Trump has long cast himself as tough on crime, with his party typically rushing to publicly back his policies, the death penalty isn’t strictly a Blue vs. Red issue. For instance, while 79 percent of Republicans support capital punishment, compared to 38 percent of Democrats, GOP lawmakers in at least a half-dozen states have sponsored bills this year to end the practice. But expect a death penalty focus at future Trump rallies as the president strives to fire up his base, an example of his take-no-prisoners approach. In the past, Trump’s even floated the notion of executing drug traffickers — “big pushers, the ones who are really killing people,” he said in a 2018 appeal to communities devastated by the opioid crisis.

Global decline. According to watchdog Amnesty International, executions around the world fell 31 percent last year. Excluding China, which doesn’t share its data, only four countries — Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam — accounted for 78 percent of all death penalties carried out. And while several countries, like Sudan, Thailand and Taiwan resumed executions last year, top executioners Iran and Iraq more than halved their instances of capital punishment. Meanwhile, authorities in 29 countries offered commutations and pardons. Still, more than 19,300 prisoners around the world remained sentenced to death at the end of 2018.

…but not everywhere. Japan and Singapore, both wealthy countries, continue meting out capital punishment despite facing pressure campaigns. The Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte also appears eager to buck the global trend: Ending a moratorium introduced in 2006 has been his ambition for years, and now that his allies control Congress, he may well succeed. Among other high-profile Filipino proponents is champion boxer-turned-lawmaker Manny Pacquiao, who just this week said he’s in favor of death by firing squad. First in line, if Duterte gets his way, would be those convicted of drug dealing and corruption.

WHAT TO READ

AG Barr Is Right to Resume Death Penalty for Vicious Killers, by Robert Blecker on Fox News

“During my visits, the daily lives of lifers in prison — spared the death they arguably deserved — appalled me. Inside maximum security prisons, those sentenced to life without parole form friendships, play ball, eat ice cream and watch movies — simple pleasures their victims will never enjoy.”

Would You Do ‘Execution Service’?, by Molly Fosco on OZY

“Let’s raise the stakes for jurors who condemn defendants to death. Randomly selected as they were for jury duty, one of the 12 should be tasked with injecting the deadly cocktail into the inmate they helped condemn. Prosecutors and state legislators who support the death penalty should also share the responsibility.”

WHAT TO WATCH

Federal Executions to Resume, Despite Falling Public Support for Death Penalty

“The height of public support for the death penalty — not surprisingly — came in the 1990s, when the crime rate in this country was much higher.”

Watch on PBS NewsHour on YouTube:

On the Record: Reviving Death Penalty

“To me the basic issue here — and this is what [the] government has not addressed — is really the poverty issue.”

Watch on CNN Philippines on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Regional matters. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the American South has executed around 305 times more inmates (1,227) since 1976 — when capital punishment was reinstated — than the Northeast (4).

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