NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Death Sentences Vary Widely

December 20, 1999

In the United States, whether a person convicted of a capital crime will be sentenced to death or to prison depends on where the crime was committed, according to a survey by USA Today. The key element is the local prosecutor's willingness -- or hesitation -- to seek a death sentence. So the number of criminals placed on death row varies widely not only between states, but even between adjacent counties.

  • For example, in New York City and its suburbs -- where 83 percent of the state's murder arrests occur -- the death penalty is seldom sought.
  • But in upstate areas of New York, convicted killers are far more likely to face a possible death sentence.
  • Currently, 38 states, which have more than 88 percent of the U.S. population, have statutes that allow capital punishment.
  • Fifteen counties account for nearly one-third of all prisoners sentenced to death, but they account for only one-ninth of the population of the states with capital punishment.

Urban counties with large minority populations are likely to have more murders and higher murder rates than suburban counties -- but often send fewer people to death row.

State statutes grant extensive discretion to county prosecutors over whether to seek the death penalty, life in prison or a lesser sentence. And county prosecutors, who are usually elected locally, are subject to community pressures and must take into account whether they can convince local juries to sentence defendants to death.

Source: Richard Willing and Gary Fields, "Geography of the Death Penalty," USA Today, December 20, 1999.


Browse more articles on Government Issues