The cold calculations behind Trump's move on death penalty

August 05, 2019 18:32
As the 2020 presidential election draws near, Donald Trump is doing all he can to retain the backing of his core conservative support base. Photo: Reuters

With the full backing of President Donald Trump, US Attorney General William Barr announced recently that the federal government is reinstating the death penalty, a policy that has remained dormant for the past 16 years.

According to Barr, Congress has passed laws to reinstate the capital punishment at federal levels, and the administration has already issued orders to execute five death-row inmates starting from December 9 this year.

Under the US Constitution, states are entitled to judicial autonomy, including whether or not to enforce death penalty.

At present, a total of 29 states across the United States are still enforcing the policy of capital punishment against felons, whereas 21 states have abolished it.

As far as the federal government is concerned, the last time it executed a death-row prisoner was back in 2003. Currently, there are a total of 62 inmates on death row serving time in federal prisons, including one of the main perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

As we all know, death penalty has always remained a highly controversial and divisive issue in western society.

In the US, generally speaking, the proportion of Americans who are in favor of preserving the capital punishment has gradually dropped from nearly 75 percent back in the 1990s to some 60 percent at present, according to a recent study conducted by the University of Chicago.

And that automatically begs the question: why did Trump suddenly decide to reinstate the death penalty at the federal level when public opinion in the US has been steadily turning against it over the past two decades?

Well, it partly has to do with Trump's personality, and also in large measure due to the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

According to national polls, around 80 percent of Republicans are in favor of preserving the death penalty, as compared to just 50 percent among the Democrats.

Besides, the 62 death-row inmates who are now serving in federal prisons are predominantly from poor southern states, where the ratio of the number of African Americans is much higher than the ratio of the number of the African Americans in the nation as a whole.

Now, by supporting the reinstatement of the death penalty for federal crimes, Trump can, first, be aiming to showcase "moral courage" to deliver justice for the victims and their families.

Second, by bringing back the death penalty, Trump can also hope to boost his popularity among the conservative Republicans.

Third, resuming the policy of capital punishment can please the white supremacists, a group that is seen as part of Trump's support base. 

Last but not least, reinstating the death penalty may be able to put Joe Biden, former vice-president and the current front-runner in the Democratic presidential primaries, on the defensive, given that Biden has been wavering between keeping and scrapping the death penalty during his campaign.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 1

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal