A Nov. 16 op-ed addressed an October panel discussion centered around the various issues with the death penalty ("Addressing false assumptions about the death penalty"). The author claims the panel “defended the indefensible” — rapists and murderers. The panel’s purpose was not to “defend” anybody, but to address a broken system and discuss better alternatives. What is indefensible is the perpetuation of a failed policy that doesn’t keep the public safer, risks executing innocent people and costs taxpayers millions of dollars in the process.
The author claims that the death penalty acts as a deterrent and saves lives — that more executions means a lower overall murder rate. The problem with that argument, though, is that it’s false on its face. He cites that in 1960 there were 56 executions and 9,140 murders. Four years later there were 15 executions and 9,250 murders. Therefore, because there were 41 fewer executions in 1964 versus 1960, and an increase of 110 murders, the death penalty must be an effective deterrent. What he fails to factor in is the population increase in the United States from 1960 to 1964. This means the homicide rate was lower in the year with fewer executions — 5.1 murders per 100,000 in 1960 and 4.9 in 1964.
When comparing death penalty states against non-death penalty states, the lack of deterrent effect is apparent. In the last decade, death penalty states have seen an average increase in their homicide rates of 2.25 percent, from 5.31 per 100,000 people in 2007 to 5.43 in 2016. Non-death penalty states have actually seen their homicide rates decrease by 7.9 percent, from 5.28 in 2007 to 4.86 in 2016.
Additionally, of the 10 states with the lowest murder rates in 2016, eight of them were states with no death penalty. Finally, since the argument is that more executions means an overall lower murder rate, when you take the top 10 states with the highest execution numbers since the death penalty was reinstated, they have an average homicide rate of 5.78 over the last decade, roughly 17 percent higher than the national average of 4.94 during the same time.
Dozens of studies far more exhaustive than an op-ed allows have shown there is no deterrent benefit to the death penalty. The most comprehensive analysis was conducted by the renowned National Research Council, which examined over three decades of studies and concluded there is no deterrent effect by having the death penalty. The conclusion of these scientists and academics is shared by experts on the front lines of keeping our communities safe. In two separate national surveys of police chiefs, the death penalty was ranked the least effective tool to prevent violent crime.
Beyond not being an effective deterrent to crime, the death penalty is flawed in other profound ways. Since 1976, at least 160 people have been released from death rows due to evidence of their innocence (an average of one person every three months) — some within hours of their scheduled executions. Additionally, the costs are outrageous. According to Utah’s Legislative Fiscal Analysis Office, the death penalty costs us $1.6 million more than life without parole per inmate. Unavoidable mandates from the U.S. Supreme Court mean capital cases take decades from trial to conclusion (which in most cases is a legal reversal of some sort, not an execution). This lengthy process is also a nightmare for the victims’ families who are promised a punishment and then forced to wait through year after year, appeal after appeal, while the condemned becomes a celebrity.
Those of us who spoke on the panel last month did so with a desire to expose the ugly truth that our death penalty system isn’t serving our state. We are eager to cultivate a robust and honest dialogue about a punishment that has cost our state millions of dollars, provides false promises to victims, risks executing innocent people and — as experts continually attest — doesn’t make us any safer.
Kevin Greene is the state director of Utah Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty.