Photo by Andrew Petro, Flickr CC

With Arkansasrecent attempts to execute seven inmates in the course of eleven days, and the Supreme Court’s upcoming oral arguments surrounding McWilliams v. Dunn , there has been a lot news about the death penalty this month. Although it is abolished in many other industrialized nations, 31 U.S. states still retain the death penalty, and there is extensive research on this “peculiar institution” and why it remains resilient today.

Despite a multitude of studies, current research remains inconclusive on the deterrent effects of capital punishment. These ambiguous findings are due to a lack of attention to “noncapital sanctions” for homicide like life sentences and incomplete data on potential murderers’ perceptions of capital punishment. What is clear is that there is an extreme racial divide in support for the death penalty, with Black Americans being consistently less likely to support capital punishment than whites. This divide is partly attributed to racial prejudice against Blacks, so much so that one study suggests that if you exclude whites with extreme racial attitudes, support for capital punishment between Black and white Americans is not nearly as bifurcated. Death sentences are also applied disparately across racial lines, with defendants convicted of killing white females most likely to receive a capital punishment sentence, while those convicted of killing Black males are afforded more leniency.
Scholars argue that the death penalty is nested within an exceptionally punitive American carceral state. Capital punishment stems from an unparalleled American political culture that centralizes issues of crime and the criminal justice system. Unlike their European counterparts, American judges and prosecutors are locally elected, allowing much of the criminal justice process to be subject to electoral cycles and public outcries. This political structure, combined with a history of racial conflict and segregation, perpetuates low levels of social solidarity and an underdeveloped state, which allows retributive punishments to flourish. This is especially evident in the American South, a region that has a long history of collective, racialized violence and where death penalty support is particularly embedded.