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Resuming Executions Puts US on the Wrong Side of History

Contradicts State-Level Reforms and Public Opinion

Attorney General William Barr speaks during a tour of a federal prison in Edgefield, South Carolina, July 8, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/John Bazemore

Fueled by a recognition that the United States criminal justice system is unfair and discriminatory, there has been a great deal of focus on efforts for reform – many bipartisan, including by President Trump. Attorney General William Barr’s decision to resume carrying out executions under the federal death penalty is a slap in the face of this effort. It ignores concerns over the death penalty’s equity and fairness, and is contrary to efforts around the nation and the world to end this form of punishment.

The US has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with more than two million people behind bars. Now it will add to its legacy as an outlier globally by restarting federal executions after a nearly two-decade hiatus. More than 70 percent of the world’s countries have abolished capital punishment in law or practice. This decision positions the federal government as the renegade, compared with the states. Twenty-one states have outlawed the death penalty. Public attitudes are also changing. A 2018 Gallup Poll found a decrease in the number of Americans who believe it is applied fairly.

Barr’s declaration came just months after Trump, with much fanfare, surrounded by many formerly incarcerated people, signed the First Step Act, which makes modest reforms to the criminal justice system. The death penalty is inconsistent with the inherent dignity of the person and is an inherently cruel form of punishment. In the US, it is inevitably plagued with arbitrariness, racial disparities, and error. Since 1973, 166 people have been released from death row after later being found innocent. Just last month, two California prisoners, each with over 30 years on death row, were freed after appellate courts found significant errors in their trials.

Numerous studies over the past several decades have found persistent patterns of racial disparities in courts imposing the death penalty, with Black people much more likely to receive such verdicts, especially if the victim is white.

Since Trump’s election, the US has been at the center of both nationwide and global criticisms regarding eroding rights protections ranging from a newfound disrespect for the rule of law to an immigration system that has led to family separations, and harsh and dangerous detention conditions, including keeping children in cages.

Barr’s decision only cements the image of the United States as a nation that fails to respect people’s inherent rights and dignity.

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