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Capital Punishment in the U.S. Is Still Biased

Even as it's grown increasingly rare.
(Photo: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

The American justice system executed fewer people in 2015 than it has in nearly 25 years, and it handed out fewer death sentences this year than it has in almost 40, according to new data from the Death Penalty Information Center. Despite these historic lows, however, racial bias persists among those who were executed. We thought this was an apt time to review the numbers.

About equal numbers of blacks and whites are murdered every year in the United States. Yet, in America, the killers of white folks are more likely to receive the death penalty than those who kill blacks, as a "generation of research studies" has shown. In addition, a study published just this year demonstrated that mock jurors are equally likely to convict black and white defendants of murder if the punishment is life without parole—but they're more likely to convict a black defendant if the punishment is death. As a result, "African Americans may be wrongfully sentenced to death more often and whites could be wrongfully acquitted more often," as Kate Wheeling wrote in July.

In the Death Penalty Information Center's data, out of the 28 prisoners who states executed this year, only six were involved in cases in which black Americans were murdered.

Advocate groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have long called for a moratorium on the death penalty, citing the recorded racial bias in its implementation. The Supreme Court, however, has upheld capital punishment; halting it due to racial bias would mean the U.S. would have to put an end to other criminal punishments that are affected by bias—and so many of them are.

Fortunately, other research offers some hope for reducing racism in the American criminal justice system. There's that study showing racially mixed juries help white jurors to be more skeptical of black defendants' guilt. Or the study that shows judges can, in fact, overcome bias in their sentencing, even when tests show they carry unconscious bias (as nearly all people do, to varying degrees).

Meanwhile, the drastic reduction in death sentences certainly helps, even if it's only a start.