More than half of all Americans support the death penalty, according to a Gallup poll conducted last fall. As 2018 comes to a close, the statistics don’t live up to the polling, but they also do not tell the whole story.

This year, there were 25 men executed in the United States. That is two more executions than last year and 73 less than the 1999 high-water mark of the modern era of the death penalty.

This year’s executions were carried out in only eight states, primarily in the south. Texas again led the nation with 13 executions, next was Tennessee with three. No other state had more than two executions.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit advocacy group, “the prolonged decline in new death sentences in the United States reached new historic lows in 2018.”

The 42 new death sentences imposed this year mark the fourth straight year with fewer than 50 new death sentences.

In 2018, Washington became the 20th state to abolish the death penalty and even Pope Francis jumped into the fray. The pope revised the position of the Catholic Church, formally declaring the death penalty “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

Regardless of the future of the death penalty in America, the ultimate punishment has left its mark on the entire criminal justice system. During the 1990s when violent crime was on the rise and states were churning out executions - juvenile offenders were incurring the wrath of lawmakers across the country.

State after state made it easier to try juveniles as adults, made it easier to throw juveniles in adult prison and made it common place to hand out longer and more draconian sentences. For instance, in 1995 Pennsylvania’s newly-elected governor, Tom Ridge, called a special legislative session on crime. The result was a change in charging juveniles as adults - resulting, in part, in Pennsylvania having more than 500 juveniles serving life without parole, more than any other state in the union.

Then in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the execution of all persons under the age of 18. The Court found that executing juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The High Court did not stop there. Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that the juvenile brain is not fully developed at age 16 or 17 and, in fact, may not be fully developed until the early 20’s. “The qualities that distinguish juveniles from adults do not disappear when an individual turns 18,” wrote Kennedy.

Since then, the Court has also ruled that a juvenile can’t be sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide offense, or to mandatory life without parole. However, the Supreme Court has never extended those protections beyond the age of 18.

No other decision of the U.S. Supreme Court has had more impact on modern juvenile jurisprudence than the High Court’s decision banning the execution of juvenile offenders. The reasoning behind that decision has started to creep beyond the acts of juveniles and into the realm of adult criminal justice.

Last year, a Kentucky court found that it was unconstitutional to sentence to death those who were younger than 21 at the time of their offense. Earlier this year, a federal court in Connecticut found that a man, who had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for murders committed at age 18, should be resentenced. The court ruled that “the hallmark characteristics of juveniles that make them less culpable also apply to 18-year-olds.”

The impact of the death penalty is undeniable - regardless of one’s opinion about its propriety.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.