The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision today to ban death sentences for those who committed crimes while kids under the age of 18 has special relevance for the South. Here are the sobering statistics, courtesy of the excellent Death Penalty Information Center:
  • Of the 19 states that have allowed youths to be given death sentences, 11 are in the South.
  • Four of those Southern states -- and six outside of the South -- had no minimum age for death sentences until 1988, when Thompson v. Oklahoma mandated a minimum age of 16.
  • Most telling of all is how this has been actually applied: of the 22 youths who have been given death sentences since 1973, all but three were in the South -- and those three were in the border states of Missouri and Oklahoma.
A draconian criminal justice system, of which the death penalty is only one egregious sympton, is one of the less redeeming features of the South. Fortunately, this is one area where, as my colleague Gary Ashwill (via David Sirota) noted in another post, budget crises have been good for progressive politics.

During the "get tough on crime" craze of the 1990s -- in which the South led the way, locking up more people than any other part of the country -- states shoveled billions of dollars into prison-building, often as a tool for rural economic development. African Americans and Latinos have suffered the most.

But the state budget crises of the last five years slowed that down, and many states are now slashing prison budgets and diverting resources into prevention and treatment programs (which are cheaper) -- just what progressives had argued for all along.

By the way, for those who think it's time to finish off the death penalty for good, two excellent groups agitating for abolition in the South are the Southern Center for Human Rights (based in Atlanta) and in North Carolina, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.