Will the US Abolish the Death Penalty Thanks to Joe Biden?

The White House has announced a moratorium on federal executions. Since the U.S. president does not have full authority to act on the matter, this is a small step toward abolishing the death penalty.

The U.S. Justice Department announced last Thursday that it hopes to impose a moratorium on federal executions, denouncing how arbitrary they are, and their “disparate impact on people of color,” in contrast to the Trump administration, under which a record number of executions were carried out. As Attorney General Merrick Garland detailed in a memo: “Serious concerns have been raised about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases.”

Garland ordered a moratorium on all federal executions while the Department of Justice reviews its policies.

How Many Executions Have Taken Place Since Joe Biden Took Office?

Zero. But about 2,500 men and women are waiting on death row. Approximately 50 of these inmates are in federal prisons (mostly in Terre Haute, Indiana); the majority are in prisons managed directly by a state.

The death penalty can be imposed at the federal level for people charged with a federal crime, i.e., treason, espionage, murder in matters falling under federal jurisdiction, large-scale drug trafficking or the attempted murder of a witness, juror or law enforcement officer.

What Actions Has Biden Taken Since He Took Office?

During his first 100 days in office, Biden signed several executive orders reversing actions taken by his predecessor, Donald Trump, but none dealt with the issue of the death penalty. Hence the impatience and frustration of anti-death penalty activists. Biden has not even mentioned the death penalty since he took office. At the very most, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declared last March that Biden continued to have “grave concerns” over its use, hence the importance today of this moratorium pronounced on federal executions.

“President Biden made clear, as he did on the campaign trail, that he has grave concerns about whether capital punishment, as currently implemented, is consistent with the values that are fundamental to our sense of justice and fairness,” Psaki said.

One month before Biden took office, 45 members of Congress led by Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, sent him a letter requesting that he recommit, as early as Jan. 20, to dismantling the use of the death penalty altogether.

Is the Death Penalty Still Imposed Throughout the United States?

The states execute more prisoners than the federal government. To date, 23 of the 50 states no longer impose the death penalty. Virginia was the last state to ratify its abolition of the practice within its borders, thus becoming the first Southern U.S. state to do so.

Who Can Abolish the Death Penalty in the U.S.?

The moratorium ordered by the White House is a first step. But the U.S. president can only push for the abolition of the death penalty at the federal level — unless, as anti-death penalty activists remind us, he signs an executive order preventing any state from scheduling executions. Otherwise, it rests in the hands of the governors and lawmakers of each state. Moreover, abolishing the federal death penalty through a vote in Congress would be the best way to ensure no new president authorizes executions again, as Trump did, for instance. Indeed, in July 2019, former Attorney General William Barr canceled an informal moratorium on federal executions in effect since 2003, which led to a record number of deaths by lethal injection. During Trump’s presidency, 12 men and one woman were executed in the space of six months.

Before that, Barack Obama commuted two federal death sentences to life sentences before he left the White House. It was the first time since 2001 that a president spared a death row inmate. But this was only a tiny number of all the prisoners waiting on death row.

Garland also noted at his confirmation hearing in February that the new administration was committed to reversing Trump’s actions. “The data is clear that it has an enormously disparate impact on Black Americans and members of communities of color.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 185 people sentenced to death since the 1970s were wrongfully convicted. The nongovernmental organization has also found that out of the 1,532 people executed since 1976, 20 men presented substantial evidence of their innocence.

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