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  Chapter Twelve:

  Capital Punishment
  Offenses of Prisoners
  Juvenile Offenders



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Capital Punishment

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Capital punishment increased during the first four decades of the century and then declined sharply in the subsequent three decades. The practice was abolished and then restored during the 1970s, and its use increased in the last two decades of the century.
By 1972, the United States was almost alone among developed nations in retaining capital punishment, but fourteen states had abolished it, and half a dozen other states had effectively abandoned its use. In that year, in Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court preempted the issue by ruling that the death penalty as then applied was “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore prohibited under the Constitution. The decision overturned more than 600 death sentences, but it provoked a backlash as states enacted new legislation to meet the Supreme Court’s objections. After a five-year interval, executions resumed slowly and increased through the end of the century. 

Before Furman, executions for rape were not uncommon, and some executions for treason, espionage, and kidnapping also occurred. After Furman, murder was the only crime that warranted a penalty of death. 

The states vary greatly in their use of the death penalty. Thirty-eight states had capital statutes in 1998, while twelve states and the District of Columbia did not. In 1997, thirty-three states held no executions and sixteen of these had no one on death row. Texas, Florida, and Virginia accounted for most of the executions carried out in the last two decades of the century. Few women were sentenced to death during the century and even fewer were executed. 

By the 1980s, capital punishment had become something of a paradox, as one set of courts handed down death sentences freely and another set of courts prevented most of them from being carried out. As a result, the normal time between sentencing and execution was prolonged from months to years and eventually to decades. At the same time, the number of prisoners on death row grew rapidly, increasing fivefold between 1980 and 1998. In 1997, 256 newcomers arrived on death row, while only 74—2 percent—of the 3,335 prisoners awaiting execution on January 1, 1997, were executed that year.

Chapter 12 chart 3

Source Notes
Source Abbreviations

HS series H 1155, H 1159, H 1162, and H 1165; SA 1987, table 311; SA 1997, table 362; and HCS, table 2.1. See also Paul Duggan, “Another Day, Another Execution: At Texas Death House, They Have It Down to a Science,” Washington Post, December 9, 1998, sec. A, p. 11. The chart shows executions “under civil authority.” It does not include 160 executions by the Army and Air Force (the Navy has had no executions since 1849) or the illegal executions called lynching.


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