Saturday, July 28, 2007

Death Penalty Applied Unevenly

The Dallas Morning News has reversed its long-time support for capital punishment after considering issues such as the fairness of the application of death sentences in terms of geographic distribution.

read more digg story

The 100th inmate from Harris County (Houston), Texas was recently executed. Since 1976, this one county has sent more people to their death than the next most active death penalty state - Virginia. During the same time period, 16 states and the federal government have executed 48 individuals.

The article questions the fairness of executing an individual based on where the crime was committed. Obviously the data suggest a much wider geographic disparity. Embedded within the geographic disparity issue is the cost of administering the death penalty. A rural Idaho county will have to choose between selling land or employee layoffs if the prosecutor decides to retry a death penalty case.

The data suggest a huge disparity between urban and rural sentencing patterns. We do not have sufficient data to draw the conclusion that geographic discrimination exists, but we should be very suspicious. For example, we don't the distribution of death-eligible homicides between urban and rural jurisdictions. It is time to revive the concept of proportionality review (which the U.S. Supreme Court approved in 1976 but abandoned in 1984), but at the national level.

We also need to be cautious when using the term fairness. Many people use phrases such as "simple justice" or fairness in the context of homicide at the micro level - the killer is responsible for the murder and deserves to die. When social scientists or others (such as the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News) question the fairness of capital punishment, I suggest that we need to point out that we are doing so from a macro-level view. Is it fair for two people to commit the same offense yet receive different punishments because of where the crime was committed?

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