Geographical Disparity And The Death Penalty

As Doug Berman noted, St. Louis University Law School, along with Washington University in St. Louis, put on a truly engaing conference on the issue of prosecutorial discretion and the Missouri death penalty. The conference was built around a study by Barnes, Sloss and Thaman that showed, among other things, a notable disparity in charging of first degree murder, seeking of death, and imposition of death, between different Missouri counties.

This leads to an interesting question: is there something problematic about intra-state geographic disparity in sentencing? Criminal law practitioners have long been aware of county-by-county disparities in sentencing. For example, when I was public defender in Philadelphia, it was routinely the case that a person who stole a car (for a first offense) would get probation in the city. Take that same car from the suburbs, however, and the defendant would go to jail. The same held true for shoplifting: suburban communities with big malls (and big mall revenues) were considerably tougher on retail theft.

The reality is that communities inevitably judge crime in context. As one panelist noted, a two kilo cocaine bust looks a lot different in Miami than in a small community in the middle of Virginia. And the sentence will likely reflect the uniqueness of the offense. One of the benefits of sentencing guidelines – if this is indeed a benefit – is the flattening of sentencing differences within a state. But perhaps local communities should exert substantial control over sentencing. After all, the citizens of Oakland and and those in Orange County probably don’t agree about the proper sanction for, say, marijuana sales. When you level the field, urban communities – often home to unusally large numbers of minority defendants – may see sentences leveled up, not down. This is one of the pernicious aspects of federal sentencing guidelines. Vermnot defendants receive South Carolina sized sentences.

So what about the death penalty? Is geographic disparity with respect to the death penalty particularly noxious? Should there at least be statewide consistency for this sanction? I’m not sure. There are strong reasons to oppose use of capital punishment – first of which, it seems to me, is that the death penalty does disparately affect people based on race, class and disability (all of which are illegitimate bases for disparate treatment, in my mind. ) For me, however, local differences are a not-entirely-unfriendly aspect of our governmental system. So the main question becomes: does geographical disparity mask the unaccpetable sorts of difference based on race, class, or disability? (And I am most worried when the difference is inheres to the detriment of minorities groups; disparity that harms majority groups is at least slightly more likely to be managed through majoritarian process.) The Missouri study suggests that geography masks race; that is the question we should probably be asking.

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