Earlier this month, a panel made up of death penalty abolitionists gathered together at the University of Utah to defend the indefensible — murder and rape. Advocating on behalf of monsters, the panel presented a largely fallacious and emotionally charge argument against the death penalty, an argument they plan to take to the Utah State Legislature in the 2018 legislative session. The panel, hosted by Young Americans for Liberty, made four basic arguments: 1. It’s too expensive; 2. It unfairly targets minorities; 3. It’s too risky and; 4. It’s too arbitrary. Arguments centered on the basic premise that there is “no deterrent effect” and that these murderers and rapists are victims of an unfair or mean system.
The claim that there is “no deterrent effect” is false on its face. If, as the panel claimed, there is no deterrent effect, then during the moratorium on the death penalty in the United States from 1972-76, the murder rate should not have significantly risen. However, according to the Bureau of Criminal Justice, in 1960 there were 56 executions carried out and 9,140 murders committed that year. By 1964 there were only 15 executions carried out and the murder rate started to rise to 9,250 murders committed that year. From 1969-76 there were zero executions in the United States and only two executions from 1976-80. However, the murder rate skyrocketed from 9,960 in 1969 to 23,040 in 1980 — a 131 percent increase in just 10 years.
Regular executions resumed in the 1990s and from 1995-00 we averaged 71 executions per year in the United States — a 21,000 percent increase in executions over the 1966-80 time period. Spoiler alert, the murder rate dropped from a high of 10.2 per 100,000 in 1980 to 5.7 per 100,000 in 1999 — a 44 percent reduction in the rate of murder. In light of these numbers, even if we ignore that just as many appeals are available for persons sentenced to life or that they’ll be housed for decades longer, the fact that it is expensive seems worth it considering the number of lives saved by a 44 percent decrease in murder rates.
As for the claim that the death penalty unfairly targets minorities or is somehow otherwise arbitrary, let’s look at the numbers. According to the Rand Corporation, white murderers receive the death penalty 32 percent of the time while nonwhite murderers receive the death penalty 27 percent of the time. The perceived arbitrary nature of the application of the death penalty, by people with no legal experience or direct knowledge of the murder cases for which they speak in the abstract, has more to do with what prosecutors think they can prove than their whim. In fact, what some outsider may deem arbitrary may actually be proof of the penalty’s judicious use, reserved only for the most heinous or most obvious cases. And there is simply no evidence that a wrongly convicted person has ever been put to death in the United States.
In summation, the argument that life in prison is just as good — “the other death sentence” — ignores the fact that these monsters can still paint, sing songs, hear birds chirp, read books, form relationships, feel love or pride, etc. They can do many meaningful human things that they permanently denied their victims.
As Edward Koch put it: “It is by exacting the highest penalty for the taking of human life that we affirm the highest value of human life.” Just some things for the death penalty abolitionists to consider.
Michael Miller holds a Masters of Public Administration and works for the U.S. Department of Defense.