On October 29, the U.S. Justice Department released the annual FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2011, indicating that the national murder rate dropped 1.5% from 2010. This decline occurred at a time when the use of the death penalty is also decreasing nationally. The Northeast region, which uses the death penalty the least, had the lowest murder rate of the 4 geographic regions, and saw a 6.4% further decrease in its murder rate in 2011, the largest decrease of any region. By contrast, the South, which carries out more executions than any other region, had the highest murder rate. It saw a small decline from last year. The murder rate in the West remained about the same, while the rate in the Midwest increased slightly. Four of the five states with the highest murder rates are death-penalty states, while four of the five states with the lowest murder rates are states without the death penalty. See table below.
In a recent editorial, the Sacramento Bee of California sharply challenged the theory that the death penalty deters murders. The paper illustrated that homicide rates in California, New York and Texas have tracked virtually identically between 1974 and 2009, and yet each state has differed widely in its use of capital punishment (see chart). The editorial stated, “[D]uring that time Texas had 447 executions and New York had none; California had 13. Clearly, something other than executions has had an effect on declining murder rates. And that clearly is what we should focus on." The editorial also quoted a recent study conducted by the National Research Council finding that three decades of research on deterrence was “not informative” and “should not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide." On September 9, the Sacramento Bee announced it was reversing its historic 150-year support of the death penalty and endorsing the repeal of California's capital punishment law. Read the recent editorial below.
Legislators and other officials in Utah are expressing concerns about the high costs of the death penalty and its lack of deterrent effect. Speaking before the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee, Republican State Representative Steve Handy (pictured) said, “In today’s world, the death penalty is so infrequently used that I don’t believe it is any kind of a deterrent." The Davis County prosecutor, Troy Rawlings, a proponent of the death penalty, nevertheless agreed that replacing the death penalty with life without parole "would remove some of the significant complications of cases and expedite them, as well as save money." According to legislative fiscal analyst Gary R. Syphus, it costs county governments $460,000 annually to defend and prosecute a capital murder case. The Law Enforcement Committee has ranked the death penalty the number one policy issue to study this year, and a committee at the University of Utah is also researching the costs of death penalty cases in the state.
John J. Donohue (pictured), a research associate for the National Bureau of Economic Research and a professor at Stanford Law School, recently highlighted continuing problems with the death penalty system, forty years after it was struck down for being applied in an arbitrary manner. Professor Donohue wrote that despite “new and improved” statutes accepted by the Court when it reinstated the death penalty in 1976, “four decades later, there is plenty of evidence that the death penalty continues to be applied in an unfair manner and not a shred of evidence that the death penalty deters.” Professor Donohue cited a recent finding by the National Research Council, which examined all deterrence studies over the past 35 years and concluded that the studies are “not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates” and “should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment.” Professor Donohue also encouraged voters in California to replace the death penalty in November’s ballot. He said, “[D]espite the supposed improvements endorsed in 1976, the death penalty remains hopelessly broken… We have the chance to prevent innocent people from being executed, end the unfairness that pervades the current system, and save millions in tax revenues, all while improving public safety.”
During a recent presentation, University of Houston Law Professor David R. Dow shared lessons learned from the 20 years during which he defended over 100 death row inmates. Professor Dow asserted that there are common factors in the lives of those who are currently facing capital punishment. Dow said, “[I]f you tell me the name of a death row inmate - doesn't matter what state he's in, doesn't matter if I've ever met him before - I'll write his biography for you. And eight out of 10 times, the details of that biography will be more or less accurate… Eighty percent of the people on death row are people who came from [some] sort of dysfunctional family…. Eighty percent of the people on death row are people who had exposure to the juvenile justice system.” Professor Dow asserts that intervention during earlier stages of defendants’ lives may be one of the most effective ways of preventing them from committing violent crimes later on: “People might disagree about whether [a murderer] should have been executed. But I think everybody would agree that the best possible version … would be a story where no murder ever occurs.” Professor Dow concludes that early intervention is also a more practical use of taxpayers’ money. He said, “[F]or every $15,000 that we spend intervening in the lives of economically and otherwise disadvantaged kids in those earlier chapters, we save $80,000 in crime-related costs down the road. Even if you don't agree that there's a moral imperative that we do it, it just makes economic sense.”
Two researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Professors Justin Wolfers (pictured) and Betsey Stevenson, recently explained why decades of studies have failed to show a reliable deterrent effect from the death penalty. The authors cited a 2012 report from the National Academy of Sciences, concluding that the deterrence studies of the past 30 years “should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment.” Wolfers and Stevenson explain why these studies cannot be relied on regarding whether the death penalty deters murder:
--the death penalty is applied extremely rarely (1 execution in 500 murders), which makes empirical study of its impact difficult to measure;
--homicide rates fluctuate for reasons completely unrelated to capital punishment (homicide rates tend to rise and fall roughly in unison across states, regardless of whether they have the death penalty);
--a more vigorous use of the death penalty likely occurs at the same time as other criminal justice changes, and it is impossible to separate the effects of the death penalty from the effects of these changes; and
--most importantly, there is no evidence on how potential murderers perceive the risk of execution if they are caught, which is key to determining whether capital punishment is a deterrent.
Commentary from nationally syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne (pictured) and the New York Times reflected on the changing state of the death penalty in the U.S. in light of recent developments. Dionne cited the repeal of the death penalty in Connecticut as an example of a "remarkable pivot in the politics of the death penalty, the premier issue on which an overwhelming consensus favoring what’s taken to be the conservative side has begun to crumble." He observed that "significant groups of libertarian Republicans and opponents of abortion have crossed to the repeal side." In an editorial titled "The Myth of Deterrence," the New York Times noted that "a distinguished committee of scholars working for the National Research Council has now reached the striking and convincing conclusion that all of the research about deterrence and the death penalty done in the past generation . . . should be ignored." The Times concluded that other states should follow Connecticut’s lead in repealing the death penalty. Read full texts below.
In a recent op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter called for the end of the death penalty. President Carter cited the risk of wrongful executions, the lack of evidence of deterrence, and the costs of prosecution as reasons to abolish capital punishment. He wrote, “[T]here has never been any evidence that the death penalty reduces capital crimes or that crimes increased when executions stopped. Tragic mistakes are prevalent. DNA testing and other factors have caused 138 death sentences to be reversed since I left the governor’s office. The cost for prosecuting executed criminals is astronomical. Since 1973, California has spent roughly $4 billion in capital cases leading to only 13 executions, amounting to about $307 million each.” President Carter also cited the unfair application of the death penalty as an especially compelling reason for repeal: “Perhaps the strongest argument against the death penalty is extreme bias against the poor, minorities or those with diminished mental capacity. Although homicide victims are six times more likely to be black rather than white, 77 percent of death penalty cases involve white victims. Also, it is hard to imagine a rich white person going to the death chamber after being defended by expensive lawyers. This demonstrates a higher value placed on the lives of white Americans.” Read full op-ed below.
A report released on April 18 by the prestigious National Research Council of the National Academies based on a review of more than three decades of research concluded that studies claiming a deterrent effect on murder rates from the death penalty are fundamentally flawed. The report concluded: “The committee concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates. Therefore, the committee recommends that these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide. Consequently, claims that research demonstrates that capital punishment decreases or increases the homicide rate by a specified amount or has no effect on the homicide rate should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment." (emphasis added). Criminologist Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon, who chaired the panel of experts, said, “We recognize this conclusion will be controversial to some, but nobody is well served by unfounded claims about the death penalty. Nothing is known about how potential murderers actually perceive their risk of punishment."