The dawn of the 21st century marked a turning point in the history of the American death penalty. Politically, the death penalty seemed vulnerable. A wave of abolitionism not seen since the Progressive Era took hold in the 2000s, as six states abandoned the death penalty, and governors in five others instituted moratoria, promising to use their executive power to stay all executions while they remained in office. While the Supreme Court remained committed to the constitutionality of the death penalty, it slowly chipped away at it in a series of decisions that narrowed the range of persons whom the state could execute.
Public support for the death penalty, already in decline during the late 1990s, continued to fall in the 21st century. A number of factors depressed support for the death penalty to levels not seen since the early 1970s: a decline in violent crime and fear of crime; highly publicized DNA-based exonerations of death-row inmates; and wariness of the cost of maintaining the death penalty, particularly during the great recession of the late 2000s.
The use of the death penalty was declining as well. The expansion of life without parole as an alternative punishment in the 1990s and 2000s gave juries in some states harsh alternatives to death sentences that they did not previously have. Longer-term changes to the judicial and penal administration of the death, meanwhile, continued to make the path between conviction and execution longer and more difficult for state officials to traverse. Most offenders sentenced to death since the 1970s were not (or have not yet been) put to death, and the average wait on death row for those who have been executed has grown to over a decade and a half. Growing problems with the practice of lethal injection, meanwhile, have posed new problems for states seeking to execute capital defendants in the 2000s, producing new legal battles and bringing executions nationwide to a temporary halt in 2007–2008.
The 2016 election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States, however, may portend a slowing or reversing Americans’ 21st-century turn away from the death penalty.
Disciplinary segregation is a punishment that prison officials impose in response to inmate violations of prison rules such as assaulting another inmate or disrespecting an officer. Disciplinary segregation is distinct from other types of restrictive housing (e.g., supermax confinement, administrative segregation), but it is the most commonly used form of restrictive housing in most states. Inmates housed in disciplinary segregation typically spend 23 hours a day in a cell, with limited interaction with other inmates or prison staff. Inmates’ access to other privileges such as recreation, programming, and visitation is also restricted during their time in disciplinary segregation.
Prison officials have the discretion to place inmates found guilty of violations of the inmate rules of conduct in disciplinary segregation, and indeed, segregation is a common response to rule violations. It is expected that confinement in disciplinary segregation will deter inmates’ subsequent rule breaking, but some scholars argue that confinement in disciplinary segregation amplifies inmates’ misbehavior via labeling or by stimulating mental health problems that ultimately result in problem behaviors (e.g., rule violations). Despite these assertions, there is little evidence regarding the impact of disciplinary segregation on inmates’ behavior or mental health. Precise estimates of the extent of the inmate population exposed to disciplinary segregation (and their level of exposure), and studies of the factors that influence prison officials’ decision to place inmates in disciplinary segregation are also limited. The frequency with which disciplinary segregation is used, its greater cost compared to general population confinement, and calls for the equitable and effective use of restrictive housing in prisons by civil rights advocates, the U.S. Congress, and former President Obama underscore the need for further research on the topic.
Marian R. Williams
The death penalty has long been a source of debate and is perhaps the most litigated sentence in the United States. Arguments for the use of the death penalty point to “just deserts” or retribution, while arguments against its use point to its implementation, including how the death penalty is administered (e.g., via electrocution, lethal injection), the types of offenses that are eligible for the death penalty (e.g., murder, rape, treason), and the offenders who are sentenced to death (e.g., males, minorities). This latter concern is the subject of much research, to the extent that a number of U.S. Supreme Court cases have addressed this research, especially in the cases Furman v. Georgia (1972) and McCleskey v. Kemp (1987). Research has indicated that those who are sentenced to death share common characteristics, including gender, minority status, social class, geography, and victim similarities. Overwhelmingly, research has noted that, in general, those who kill white victims are the most likely to receive a death sentence, particularly black offenders who kill white victims. Also, males are more likely to receive a death sentence than females, low-income individuals are more likely to receive a death sentence than higher-income individuals, and committing a capital offense in a handful of counties in the United States increases the likelihood of a death sentence.
It is difficult to determine in most cases the reasons for this disparity. Outright discrimination by prosecutors, judges, and/or juries is a possibility, but the court system has made it extremely difficult for offenders to prove discrimination in their individual cases. Some researchers argue that the criminal justice system is stacked against minorities and the poor, by enforcing laws more forcefully in their neighborhoods and requiring financial resources to defend oneself (e.g., bail, defense attorneys). Regardless of the reason for disparate treatment in individual cases, the fact that disparate treatment exists is concerning in a country whose constitution emphasizes due process and equal protection under law.
Sentencing guidelines were created with the goal of reducing unwarranted disparities in sentencing outcomes based on race, gender, and other legally irrelevant characteristics in order to establish a uniform sentencing system. In the 21st century, approximately 21 states and the federal courts use sentencing guidelines, although the types of guidelines used vary, with some more restrictive than others. With the quest to create more uniform sentences, scholars have examined whether the guidelines have actually reduced unwarranted disparities in sentencing outcomes. One area that has received attention from sentencing scholars as an avenue for the potential reintroduction of disparity into the sentencing process is the ability to sentence offenders outside of the guideline range, a practice otherwise known as “sentencing departures.”
Departures from guideline sentences are either below or above the suggested guideline range for a particular offense, with most departures resulting in below guideline sentences. Both judges and prosecutors have the authority to issue departures. Within the federal sentencing guideline system, prosecutors have the sole discretion to offer substantial assistance and other types of government-sponsored downward departures. The amount of discretion given to federal judges to depart from the guidelines has changed dramatically over the years, and the use of departures has subsequently increased in recent years. Research has examined whether this increase in departures has resulted in an increase in unwarranted disparity once again. This research has primarily focused on two related questions: (1) Have departures increased disparities in sentencing outcomes based on race, ethnicity, gender, or other factors? (2) Who is most likely to receive a departure sentence? Several studies have found there to be differences in likelihood of receiving departures; with African Americans, males, and offenders charged with specific types of crimes less likely to receive downward departures. Other research, however, has further suggested that the increased use of departures may not have increased sentencing disparities based on race or ethnicity. Additionally, a new scope of research has emerged which takes a more nuanced examination of sentencing departures; looking at variations among districts, policy disagreement departures, and other considerations. Ultimately, the current body of research on the use, consequences, and implications of sentencing departures has provided some mixed findings and many questions remain unresolved. As research on departures continues, our understanding of the complex nature of sentencing decisions under guideline based systems will continue to grow.