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Washington Post Op-Ed Calls on Biden to End Federal Death Penalty

The Washington Post: President Biden, it's time to end the death penalty

By: Editorial Board

January 28, 2022

As President Donald Trump’s term closed, his Justice Department carried out 13 executions. Within a span of four days in January 2021, federal authorities put to death three people, including a mentally ill woman and an intellectually disabled man. Those were the last federal executions in 2021. After President Biden took office, the Justice Department announced a moratorium while it conducted a review. More than a pause is needed. Mr. Biden needs to fulfill his campaign promise to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and he should encourage states to follow suit.

Despite Trump Attorney General William P. Barr’s unprecedented, unseemly push to execute as many federal death row prisoners as he could, 2021 saw historic lows in how many people were executed or sentenced to death across the federal and state justice systems. According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s annual year-end report, there were 11 executions in 2021, down from 17 in 2020. As of Dec. 13, 18 people had been sentenced to death, matching the record low set in 2020. It was the seventh consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions and fewer than 50 new death sentences.

The numbers reflect Americans’ increasing skepticism of the death penalty, as more people recognize that the punishment is unfairly applied, expensive to maintain and ineffective in deterring crime. A 2021 Gallup poll found public support for the death penalty at a 50-year low. In 1994, 80 percent of those surveyed favored the death penalty for convicted murderers, compared with 54 percent in 2021.

Virginia abolished executions last March, becoming the 23rd state, and the first in the South, to end the death penalty. Now a majority of states have either abolished the death penalty or have imposed formal moratoriums on its use. At least an additional 10 states have not carried out an execution in at least 10 years. Lawmakers in Ohio and Utah are considering bipartisan legislation to repeal the death penalty in their states. Just three states — Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas — account for the majority of executions and death sentences.

The year also brought yet more evidence that the death penalty is unwise and unjust, as two more death row prisoners were exonerated. Since 1972, 186 people have been exonerated from death row. That amounts to one exoneration for every 8.3 executions. It is almost certain that people have been put to death for crimes they did not commit.

There is no question that some — perhaps most — of those on death row are guilty of the crimes for which they have been convicted. But the justice system is not reserving it for the worst of the worst; Black and poor people are more likely to be sentenced to die, indicating that the punishment is applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.

Yet even if its application were fairer, state-approved life-taking would remain an affront to human dignity. The federal government needs no further review. Mr. Biden can commute all federal capital sentences and direct the Justice Department to refrain from seeking the death penalty. He should, immediately.


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