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Article

Paul Kaplan

The death penalty, also referred to as capital punishment, is the process whereby a state government orders a sentence of death for a person found guilty of a particular set of criminal offenses. In the United States, the primary capital crime is first-degree murder with an additional aggravating factor, usually called a “special circumstance” (e.g., murder of a law enforcement officer). Capital punishment is a complex process that includes a criminal charge, an involved legal process, sentencing, special “death row” prison housing, post-conviction appeals, and the ultimate execution of the defendant. Persons sentenced to death are called condemned. Execution refers specifically to the process in which the defendant is killed. Capital punishment has been practiced throughout human history, with considerable variation across eras and regions. In the last 50 years, the use of capital punishment has declined across the globe, and there are relatively few countries that use it regularly as a form of punishment, most notably China. Some countries have abolished the death penalty completely, such as all member states of the European Union. Most other countries have seen a decline in its use. For instance, only 31 out of 50 states in the United States currently have death penalty statutes (there are also federal death penalty statutes, which are rarely used). The other 19 U.S. states are referred to as “abolitionist.” The “modern era” of capital punishment in the United States was spurred by two important Supreme Court cases. The Furman v. Georgia (1972) decision ruled that arbitrariness in the application of the death penalty deemed its use unconstitutional. The reversal of that ruling four years later in Gregg v. Georgia (1976) reestablished the death penalty in America, and experts refer to the modern era as 1976 to the present.

Article

Anne-Marie Cusac

Beginning in the mid-1970s, enormous changes governed U.S. punishment of criminal offenses, leading to harsher laws and longer prison terms than convicts in earlier decades served for the same offenses. The stark policy shift resulted in soaring prison populations that are disproportionate compared with most Western nations. The United States, with 5% of the world population, has more than 20% of the world’s prisoners. Its prison population rose 700% from 1970 to 2005. Today, one in 34 adults is under correctional control. The rates are disproportionate for minorities, especially less-educated black men (Lee, 2015; Pew, 2007, 2014; U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 2012). Shifts in physical treatment of prisoners accompanied the population boom. Jails and prisons adopted control technologies that would likely have been considered inappropriate and inhumane decades earlier. These included the stun belt and the restraint chair, devices that can cause considerable pain. These also included extensive use of solitary confinement in Supermax prisons, an echo of a method used in 18th- and 19th -century American penitentiaries and discarded because of the dangers it posed to inmate mental health. And, following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, treatment in U.S. prisons seemed to echo overseas in abuse of foreign prisoners in American hands. The Bush administration attempted to declare physical coercion as legal during interrogations, in apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions (Shane, Johnston, & Risen, 2007). What caused such a shift? Much of the change appears to be cultural in nature, connected strongly to forces such as politics, religion, pervasive beliefs about evil and children, popular culture, and economic realities. This also means that American punishment is historically more influenced by such cultural forces than by more seemingly related phenomena such as research on effective punishments, prisoner experience, or crime statistics. That American cultural trends strongly influence American punishment also means that American daily lives respond to shifts in punitiveness. Such evidence of American punishment trends appear in popular television shows and treatment of children.