The number of new death sentences issued in the U.S. dropped from 112 in 2010 down to 78 this year, marking the first time the number has fallen below 100 in the modern era of capital punishment, according to a report released on Thursday by the Death Penalty Information Center. Executions also declined by nearly half over the past decade, from 85 in 2000 to 43 in 2011.
The dramatic drop in sentences reflects a slow decline in U.S. public support for capital punishment, although a majority of Americans still support its use in some cases. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 61 percent of American voters agree that capital punishment should be legal, compared with 67 percent in 2000.
Various factors have contributed to the death penalty's declining popularity. Maintaining it is extremely expensive for taxpayers, even in states like California where it is rarely used. And due to flaws in the criminal justice system, prisoners are sentenced to death in an unpredictable manner, leading some reports to suggest that whether a prisoner will receive the death penalty is as impossible to predict as whether a person will be struck by lightning.
Several states have begun to either repeal the death penalty or use it less frequently. Illinois repealed it in January, while Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber recently halted all executions in his state. Even in Texas, traditionally home to the most executions annually, executions were reduced by 46 percent over the past two years. Other states with the death penalty, including Maryland, South Carolina, Indiana and Missouri, didn't sentence anyone to death in 2011, leaving Southern and Western states to account for 87 percent of all new sentences.
Moreover, Georgia's controversial execution of Troy Davis in September sparked protests across the world and fueled public doubts about the fairness of death sentencing.
“Whether it’s concerns about unfairness, executing the innocent, the high costs of the death penalty, or the general feeling that the government just can’t get it right, Americans moved further away from capital punishment in 2011," said Richard Dieter, executive director of DPIC and the author of the report.