Chris Uggen, fellow sociologist and editor of Contexts magazine, put together a graphic for Public Criminology comparing the current age of death row inmates in the US with their age at arrest (in the title, I assumed they were mostly men, but I don’t know):


So the median age at arrest is 27 and the median current age is 43.  This illustrates the lag time between arrest, conviction, sentencing, and  execution.  It also creates the conditions for what Uggen calls the “graying of prison populations.”   We are executing mostly middle-aged men and older, even as the young are disproportionately convicted for committing violent crimes.

I suppose whether or not we support executing a 50-year-old man for a crime he committed half a lifetime ago depends on what you think the death penalty is for.   Is it to satisfy the family of the victims?  Is it for revenge?  Is it for deterrence?  Is it to make the world outside the prison a safer place?

Executing people in their 40s, 50s, and beyond makes more sense if your goal is something like revenge, less sense if your goal is a safer world with less violent crime.  So, how we frame the death penalty (that is, how we answer the questions “what is it?” and “what is it for?”) shapes whether the graph above looks like social justice or social tragedy.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.