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Where Texas is “No. 1” in the World

What do Texas and China have in common with regards to human rights?

May 19, 2000

What do Texas and China have in common with regards to human rights?

If one looks closely, Texas’s record on the death penalty — one of the major factors in chronicling human-rights records — puts Governor Bush’s state in about the same league as China. As a whole, the United States executed 68 prisoners in 1998, according to data compiled by Amnesty International. In contrast, China carried out 1,067 executions that year — more than any other country, and more than all other nations combined.

But regardless of the fundamental difference in the U.S. and Chinese justice systems, a very different picture emerges when the numbers are adjusted for population size. By this measure, China employs the death penalty at least five times more often than the United States.

But what emerges when you separate Texas from the rest of the United States is that the state carries out a disproportionate share of executions in the United States. While Texas accounts for a mere 7% of the U.S. population, the twenty prisoners it put to death by lethal injection in 1998 accounted for 30% of all U.S. executions. In 1999, the picture darkened, with Texas carrying out 36% of the country’s executions.

Still, in absolute terms, a few dozen executions in Texas hardly seems to put the state in a class with the Chinas, Saudi Arabias and Irans of the world, countries with notoriously harsh judicial systems. Yet, if you take population size into account, Texas appears every bit as likely to administer death as a punishment as those three countries.

With 19.7 million residents, the state of Texas executed roughly one person per million in 1998. By comparison, Saudi Arabia executed 1.3 prisoners per million people. Iran, like Texas, executed one person per million.

And China, the object of scathing criticism from human-rights advocates, actually executed fewer people per million than Texas. With 1.3 billion Chinese, the 1,067 executions the country carried out in 1998 works out to 0.9 per million people. In fact, only seven nations — led by Singapore — executed more people on a per-capita basis than Texas.

When you look at the rest of the United States without Texas, the United States appears to carry out death sentences relatively sparingly. The 48 executions in states other than Texas work out to less than 0.2 executions per million non-Texan U.S. residents.

But just as there is a gulf between the United States and China on use of the death penalty, there is a similar gulf between Texas and the rest of the United States.

Of course, some may argue that it is not fair to examine Texas’s record apart from the United States as a whole. But consider that Texans like to boast that their economy would rank 13th in the world, based on its GNP adjusted for purchasing power. Among the world’s fifty largest economies, Texas would actually rank first in terms of use of the death penalty.

In addition to shedding some light on the claims of human-rights advocates seeking to scuttle the U.S.-China trade agreement, our analysis also has major implications for the upcoming presidential election. The Republican Party’s likely candidate, George W. Bush, has presided over 105 executions in Texas prisons since he took office in 1995. Despite Mr. Bush’s public calls for “compassionate conservatism,” there appear to be some conservatives who are more compassionate than Mr. Bush.

For example, Pat Robertson, the arch-conservative televangelist who helped polarize the Republican Party in the 1990s, recently appeared to soften his stance on the death penalty. During a symposium in April on religion and the death penalty, Mr. Robertson stated: “I think a moratorium [on executions] would be indeed appropriate.”

Republican Governor George Ryan of Illinois actually went a step further. Before Robertson issued his call for a nationwide moratorium on executions, Governor Ryan did issue a moratorium on executions in his state, after expressing grave reservations about the system’s effectiveness and infallibility.

One then wonders what kind of reforms Mr. Bush might have in mind for the Texas criminal code. Currently, the Texas governor has the power to grant 30-day reprieves, but cannot commute a death sentence to life in prison without the consent of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Not surprisingly, of those 105 executions during his time in office, Mr. Bush has stopped only one of them. In Texas, it seems, it is not all that easy to be compassionate conservative.