The death penalty is going out of style. Many people have many good reasons to be happy about that, and I’m among those who consistently advocate against this inhuman punishment. (Without losing sight of the many other forms of injustice perpetrated against – duly or unduly – convicted criminals).
However, it’s not going away fast enough. One can wonder why it’s still practiced at all, and hasn’t gone the road of slavery, torture, human sacrifice or similar remnants of the Middle Ages which, to the extent that they still exist, are mostly hidden in shame.
Instead of trying to answer this question, I’m going to ponder an easier one: when can we hope the death penalty will be abolished altogether? No way of knowing for sure, of course, but we can extrapolate some data sets. For instance, there’s the hopeful evolution of the numbers of countries that have outlawed the practice. So-called abolitionist countries can be divided into two groups: abolitionist in law or in practice. Depending on the source, there are about 100 countries that have no death penalty in their laws, and about 35 to 40 that still have laws but no longer apply them. That leaves about 60 so-called “retentionist” countries (some would prefer a less flattering qualifier). (Again according to the sources, there are about 195 independent countries in the world today).
Venezuela was the first country still existing in the world to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, doing so by Constitution in 1863. Among the last countries were Russia, Argentina and Latvia (you can find the complete list here). The rate of abolition accelerated quickly over the course of the last 3 decades, as I show in this graph:
As this is a case of exponential growth, we can extrapolate:
If the trend over the last 4 or 5 decades continues, and the most recent flattening of the curve is just a glitch – two big “ifs”, I admit – then the death penalty will be illegal everywhere sometime around 2022.
Another, and probably more relevant set of data are the actual numbers of executions. It’s hard to get your hands on a long time series of reliable numbers for the word as a whole, partly because data on executions in China – by far the biggest killer – are notoriously incomplete. Still, if we graph the available numbers for some of the worst countries, and assume that secrecy isn’t becoming more of a problem over time (again a big “if”), then we get a similarly hopeful evolution for most countries:
Were we to add a trend line as in the graph on abolition, then China would stop executing in 2017, which seems a bit optimistic. Saudi Arabia would stop in 2027. The US only in 2034. This neatly illustrates the limits of statistical analysis, since I’m ready to bet that the order will be exactly the reverse.
Declining popular support is a further indication of the demise of the death penalty:
And not just in the US. According to some sources, a majority of Chinese think their government executes too many people, although a clear majority still favors the punishment in principle. (Needless to say that public opinion is difficult to measure in authoritarian countries, and may be affected by authoritarian practices and the relative paucity of public debate). Less than half of Britons, French and Australians support the reintroduction of the death penalty. On the other hand, 55% of Brazilians and a stunning 85% of Japanese are in favor. (Source).