Today the American Law Institute, who wrote the framework for capital punishment the US Supreme Court adopted in Gregg v. Georgia, said that capital punishment in the US is a failure. Specifically, they stated the US irretrievably fails in “ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.” Minimally adequate? Ouch.
In the spirit of honesty, I should point out that this doesn’t necessarily mean they think the death penalty is a bad idea; merely that the US sucks at it. Furthermore, they stopped short of stating a specific position against the death penalty in general. (Glad that’s off my chest, now I can ignore it without guilt.)
Most people’s position on capital punishment is ideological and not really rooted in any objective premise one way or the other. For example, many people who are interested in “justice” are really more motivated by revenge. This became all too apparent in 2000, when then-Governor of Illinois George Ryan put a moratorium on all executions and commuted those on death row to life sentences. The mantra coming from the anti-moratorium crowd was, “What about the victim’s families?” Which is a very good slogan. Ryan’s response was that while he was sympathetic to the families, they don’t own the issue; rather this is a legal issue and should be treated as such. Which is very good logic. Besides, if the criminal is brought to what is legally recognized as appropriate justice, the families should be satisfied, correct? Well, no. Evidently satisfaction is only given through execution: it gives closure, and ensures a murderer no longer lives. While I’m absolutely certain this would be my thought should I ever be unlucky enough to formulate a first-hand opinion on the subject, I also feel this is a position borne in vengeance, and not what is best serving justice.
That being said, I must admit my primary beliefs against the penalty reside somewhere between God’s commandment not to kill (which seems exceptionless) and the seemingly obvious irony in killing people to show that killing people is wrong. While it’s obvious to me that the reasoning “two wrongs don’t make a right” is preferential to “an eye for an eye”, I also recognize that these are every bit as much ideological arguments as those I retort.
However, I think that the objective evidence does show that capital punishment is not a deterrent. The death penalty had a four year hiatus in this country, and looking at this hiatus it’s apparent that the death penalty really didn’t have much of an effect, one way or the other. Further, the “fixed” capital punishment system didn’t have much, if any, improvement over the “broken” one the Supreme Court ruled was unconstitutional. According to data given by the Justice Research and Statistics Association (pg. 38-39), the US murder rate was quite low in 1900, but around 1905 started to dramatically increase, leaving a murder rate well above 9% at the height of the Great Depression; started to decrease to below 5% in the 1950s; then started to hike again during the Vietnam War. Reaching a peak over 10% in 1980, the murder rate did not begin to significantly decrease again until 1993. 1993 was Clinton’s first year in office, which is only relevant because he was the fourth President following the reinstatement of capital punishment by the Supreme Court in 1976.
The insignificance of the death penalty on murder rates can be seen in the following graph, derived from The Disaster Center data. I used this graph because the data syncs up better with US Census Data. That’s my official explanation. The real reason is because I like making graphs:
Murder Rates Are Ambivalent About the State of Capital Punishment
So I got to thinking, what is the murder rates of the US versus other countries who do or do not have capital punishment? You can certainly make the argument that, in general, countries without the death penalty have lower murder rates. In fairness, that does seem too general. While Europe, which as a continent has almost anonymously eliminated the death penalty, has some of the lowest murder rates in the world, both Mexico and Russia have abolished the death penalty and their murder rates are higher than the US. China has a relatively low murder rate of 2.36 per 100,000 people (less than half the US level), and executions run rampant (of course, those are official numbers, which in China may not necessarily mean accurate, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt).
So I decided to go the easier route and compare the rates by state (see below). Fifteen of the US states have abolished the death penalty (Washington D.C. makes sixteen). According the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, of these states thirteen have murder rates in the best half, and nine of the lowest fifteen murder rates in the country come from this list. (In fairness, six of lowest ten states have the death penalty, but then the next five are all sans executions.) In fact, when taking population into account, the murder rate of these states is almost 35% lower than from death penalty states – 3.8% vs. 5.7%. Even if you include Washington DC, which has no death penalty but a shocking 31.4% murder rate, the total murder rate for all states without capital punishment is 4.0%; still 30% lower than in states with the death penalty. Even more damning, a study by the FBI showed that the high murder rates in the South, which is almost completely a capital punishment friendly zone, are a major factor in the whole country’s high murder rate.
At best, the list points to complete ambivalence about the whether the death penalty is effective or not. However, I do believe a little bit of Pascal’s Wager is appropriate here. The death penalty may or may not be immoral, and it may or may not work. We should ask ourselves if the bet that it works is worth the payoff, as the sum collected should we lose could very well end up being our souls.
Murder Rate by State
2008 Figures, United States Federal Bureau of Investigation
States without Capital Punishment in Mauve