Just two percent of U.S. counties have been responsible for a majority of executions since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a death penalty moratorium in 1976. And about two percent of U.S. counties house the majority of current death row inmates, according to a new report by the Death Penalty Information Center.
The findings add to the body of evidence that suggest the death penalty is applied arbitrarily, with factors such as location and race having more bearing on a death sentence than the severity of the crime.
Many of the counties that execute the most people do have higher population concentrations. But even when accounting for population, these counties represent just 15.6 percent of the U.S. population. Eighty-five percent of U.S. counties have not executed a single person in more than 45 years. In 2012, the following counties led the nation in death sentences:
Several counties that impose death sentences the most also have high rates of reversals, as well as other misconduct. Maricopa County, Arizona, for example, has four times the number of pending death penalty cases per capita as Los Angeles or Houston. But the district attorney who led these prosecutions was recently disbarred for overall misconduct.
While these sentences are concentrated, the astronomical cost of a death penalty case is borne in large part by the entire state. Some have estimated that the cost of a death sentence is $3 million, but those cases that actually end in execution have been estimated to cost $20 million or more. Kansas estimated that the cost of appeals in death penalty cases was 21 times greater than in non-death penalty cases. And scholars projected recently that California’s death penalty would cost the state $7 billion by 2050. The study, however, was not sufficient to persuade California voters to eliminate the penalty.
Cost is one of the factors that has led six other states to repeal the death penalty over the past six years. Other factors, in addition to its arbitrary imposition, include the alarming frequency of wrongful convictions.
Overall, the number of U.S. death sentences continued to decline in 2012, and three-fourths of executions took place in just four states. These statistics lend credence to the argument that the death penalty is not just cruel under the Eighth Amendment, but also increasingly unusual. Because most countries already ban the punishment, the United States — together with China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen — carried out the most executions in 2011.