Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Killer Counties: Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside

The ACLU's new report, Death in Decline '09, provides a mix of good and bad news.

The tide is turning in the United States from death sentences to permanent imprisonment. A growing number of states are choosing permanent imprisonment over the death penalty, fueled by growing concerns about the wrongful conviction of innocent people and the high costs of the death penalty in comparison to permanent imprisonment. In 2009, the number of new death sentences nationwide reached the lowest level since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. California lags behind in this national trend. The Golden State sent more people to death row last year than in the seven preceding years. By the close of 2009, California’s death row was the largest and most costly in the United States. But the aggressive pursuit of the death penalty in California is limited to a few “Killer Counties.” In fact, nearly all of California’s 58 counties have, in practice, replaced the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, mirroring the nationwide trends. Only three counties—Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside—accounted for 83% of death sentences in 2009. Together, these “Killer Counties” sentenced more people to die in 2009 than did the entire state each year from 2002 to 2008. The increase in death sentences in 2009 was most stark in Los Angeles County. With 13 death sentences, Los Angeles County sent more people to death row in 2009 than any year this decade—more than the entire state of Texas for the same period—making Los Angeles the leading death penalty county in the country.

While the report focuses, among other issues, on the racial trends of these recent death sentences, and particularly, the overrepresentation of Latinos, it also puts a humonetarian spin on it, mentioning the fact that California's financial situation should make this countertrend a cause for concern.

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