Abolition in the United States by 2050
On Political Capital and Ordinary Acts of Resistance
Bernard E. Harcourt
Is the United States on the road to abolition, and, if so, by when will it have abolished the death penalty? The federal structure of the United States complicates the answer to these questions; nevertheless, recent trends in the United States and within the larger international community suggest that the country is headed toward abolition of capital punishment. In all likelihood, a number of retentionist states will converge toward abolition over the course of the next 20 years. The combination of this domestic shift and the legal and political pressure of the international community will likely result in the U.S. Supreme Court imposing a federal constitutional ban on capital punishment, at the latest, by the mid-twenty-first century. It is entirely reasonable to believe that even before then—by 2035 or 2040—there will be no or very few executions in the United States.
Recent statistics are extremely revealing. The United States witnessed significantly decreasing numbers of executions and capital sentences during the first decade of the twenty-first century—despite a continuing political shift toward crime-control policies, as evidenced by the steadily increasing rate of incarceration throughout the country.1 The historical trends are reflected in the following graphs. Figure 3.1 shows a steep decline in the number of executions in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Of the 42 executions that were carried out in 2007, the state of Texas accounted for 26 (or 62 percent) of the total, and only nine other states participated in the statistic (Alabama and Oklahoma executing three inmates each; Indiana, Ohio, and Tennessee two inmates each; and Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, and South Dakota one inmate each).2 This reflects the fact that the death penalty in the United States has become