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Infrequent Death Sentences Cannot Be Sustained Constitutionally

For the first time in more than three decades, the U.S. had less than 100 death sentences in a year, according to a new report the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. In 2011, new death sentences dropped to 78 (a 75 percent decline since 1996), and only 43 inmates were executed - almost half as many as 10 years ago.

"If the death penalty starts to be imposed really infrequently (less than 50 this year in the face of more than 16,000 homicides in the U.S. every year), it's going to be hard to sustain it constitutionally," said Lloyd Steffen, Lehigh University professor of religion studies.

"Who is getting it and how unlucky do you have to be to get a death sentence? If we start looking at who gets the death penalty, it is going to show up poor males, and disproportionately non-whites accused of killing whites," said Steffen, author of "Executing Justice: The Moral Meaning of the Death Penalty."

He continued: "Evidence supports the concern that discrimination still infects the justice system and for many people, even death penalty supporters, the prospect of executing the innocent still constitutes a moral horror. The death penalty alternative - life imprisonment without chance of parole - today constitutes an alternative death sentence, but a death sentence it is.

"Although many citizens will accept life imprisonment as an acceptable alternative to execution, I suspect that once the death penalty becomes so rare as to fail to meet constitutional fairness standards, we may start hearing from death penalty opponents about the injustices that attach to the life imprisonment alternative.

"Life without parole raises all kinds of issues having to do prison safety and the absolute waste of human beings. I was at a conference in Prague recently where an Australian physician told me that their legal procedures take into account crimes committed under the age of 26 - which is developmentally the time before the frontal lobes are all wired in. Once that wiring is completed, young people start to mature and take responsibility and are not so impulsive and reflective, and sentencing even for serious crimes recognizes that these people change and will no longer be the same people they were when they committed a crime and that society needn't be so afraid of them.

"I've met people (as a spiritual adviser and not as director of the Lehigh Prison Project) who are serving life sentences after committing crimes in their youth and whose lives are simply removed from who they were and what they did - but they will never be set free."

Story by Sally Gilotti

Posted on Monday, December 19, 2011

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