Economist 12/21/15

  1. Only 28 prisoners have been executed in America in 2015, the lowest number since 1991. Next, consider the dwindling rate of death sentences—most striking in Texas, which accounts for more than a third of all executions since (after a hiatus) the Supreme Court reinstated the practice in 1976.According to a tally by the Death Penalty Information Centre (DPIC), a lobby group, overall only 49 people were sentenced to death in America in 2015, the lowest total in modern records.The biggest reason, says Richard Dieter of the DPIC, is juries’ nervousness about imposing an irrevocable punishment. Behind that anxiety stands another, unwilling participant in the death-penalty story: the swelling, well-publicised cadre of death-row exonerees.In 2015 alone, six more prisoners have been freed from death row.
  2. Capital cases are “a huge drain on resources”, spiralling costs that—especially given juries’ growing reluctance to pass a death sentence anyway—have helped to change the calculus about when to pursue one, Mr Farren says. In 2011 a Californian study estimated that death-penalty trials cost the taxpayer an extra $1m a pop. Guilty verdicts mean lengthy and pricey appeals; death-row prisoners are often incarcerated in expensive isolation.Even when the appeals are exhausted, enacting a death sentence has become almost insuperably difficult—because of an outlandish cameo by the pharmaceutical industry. Obtaining small quantities of drugs for lethal injection, long the standard method, might seem an easy task in the world’s richest country; but export bans in Europe, American import rules and the decision by domestic firms to discontinue what were less-than-lucrative sales lines has strangled the supply.Of the 19 states to have repealed the death penalty, seven have done so in the past nine years. Others have imposed moratoriums, formal or de facto, including, in 2015, Arkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Montana and Pennsylvania.
  3. AMERICA imprisons 2.2m people—more than any other country in both real and relative terms. About 4.4% of those prisoners, on any given day, are serving time while virtually bereft of human contact. The conditions in solitary confinement are grim: prisoners sit alone in 6-by-10 ft windowless cells for all but an hour or so a day, eating meals that are, themselves, punitive.A chorus of critics say that time in a “special housing unit” (or “SHU”) bringssevere mental and emotional harm to prisoners without making prisons any safer for inmates or staff.  New York’s rate of solitary confinement, at 8%, is nearly double the national average, and prisoners often stay in SHU for months or years. Some of those inmates are especially violent, segregated from the general prison population to avert further crimes. But many end up in solitary confinement for breaking everyday prison rules.
  4. All organisations make forecasts and pay attention to the forecasts of others. Yet the accuracy of much of this forecasting—maybe most—has not been determined.Yet when it comes to the forecasting that informs critical decisions, organisations routinely pay without demanding proper evidence of quality.One lesson: don’t overuse what statisticians call the “ignorance prior”, the tendency to say 50% whenever you feel you don’t even know enough to guess. You often do know enough.Another lesson: don’t fall in love with your first estimate. The best forecasters readily update their calls in light of new information. But they also avoid the opposite mistake of assuming this changes everything.
  5. SpaceX’s vehicle, one of its Falcon 9 rockets, was sent on its way from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 0129 GMT on December 22nd. This, in itself, was no big deal. Falcons have been travelling into orbit since 2008. What is new is that when the rocket’s first and second stages separated, and the second stage carried on ascending with its payload of 11 satellites, the first stage flipped itself over, re-lit its engines to reverse its course, and headed back to the ground. One reason missions to space are so expensive is that existing rockets are one-shot machines.The first stage of a Falcon 9 accounts for around 70% of its $54m price tag. SpaceX’s going rate for a satellite launch starts at around $60m, already the lowest in the industry, but reusable rockets would allow the company to go even lower.

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