Dumb on crime
How the death penalty fails to keep us safe
Many law enforcement officials say the death penalty wastes scarce crime prevention resources. The time spent chasing a handful of executions means countless other crimes go unsolved. The death penalty does not deter acts of violence and it siphons resources from effective tools that do. Many law enforcement officials say it is a distraction from their goal of public safety.
The death penalty diverts scarce resources from crime prevention
- "The death penalty is certainly not an effective law enforcement tool. Effective law enforcement and crime prevention requires precious resources that are being wasted on this ineffective and broken program. In times of fiscal crisis the programs that fail to achieve their own goals should be the first to go."1
— Ken Jones, 33 year veteran of Illinois' Cook County Police Department
- "If the millions of dollars currently spent on the death penalty were spent on investigating unsolved homicides, modernizing crime labs and expanding effective violence prevention programs, our communities would be much safer."2
— Ray Samuels, Former Police Chief of Newark, California
- “Continuing to spend millions of dollars to take a murder defendant who has already been caught and subject him to death rather than life without parole will not prevent the next murder. Redirecting money to more vigorously apprehend and prosecute armed robbers, rapists, burglars, and those who commit gun crimes will prevent murders and save lives.”3
— Robert M. Carney, District Attorney, Schenectady, NY
Executions keep murder rates… high?
- A simple comparison reveals that states without the death penalty actually have lower murder rates than those with the death penalty. Even though the South has over 80% of the nation’s executions, the murder rate there is higher than any other region in the US. That region also accounts for more law enforcement officers killed than any other region in the last 15 years.4
- The experience of individual states confirms the data. The murder rate in Manhattan dropped steadily for ten years even though the District Attorney there opposed the death penalty and refused to seek it.5 In New Jersey the murder rate dropped two years in a row after the death penalty was repealed, with Camden, NJ reaching its lowest level of violent crime since 1969. 6
Deterrence is a myth – and people know it
- The National Research Council reviewed more than three decades of research and found no credible evidence that the death penalty deters.7
- This isn’t surprising: to the extent someone with a deadly weapon in a rage is going to be deterred from anything, the real prospect of spending a lifetime in prison is at least as persuasive as the small chance of getting executed.
- A 2009 study found that 88% of the nation’s top criminologists believe the death penalty is not a deterrent.8 Nearly two-thirds of the American people agree, according to recent polling. 9
- Even police officers do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent. Police chiefs ranked the death penalty last among effective ways to reduce violent crime. A full 99% said that other changes such as reducing drug abuse or improving the economy were more important than expanding the death penalty in reducing violent crime.10
Law enforcement see the death penalty’s other flaws up close
- Law enforcement officials see first-hand the wide range of things that go wrong in capital cases. Even with the best intentions, police officers, lab technicians, prosecutors, judges, and witnesses can make mistakes or errors in judgment. Some law enforcement are saying that has changed their minds about the death penalty.
- Corrections officers and wardens who have participated in executions have found the experience takes a toll. From Texas to Mississippi to New York corrections officers have experienced mental health problems, alcohol abuse, and have even committed suicide from the stress of the death penalty.
We’ve learned a lot about the death penalty in the last 30 years. It does not deter crime. It actually makes us less safe by siphoning resources from programs that do reduce crime. A growing number of law enforcement officials now believe there are better ways to keep us safe.
- 1. Ken Jones, private interview.
- 2. Ray Samuels, “My Word: Newark Police Chief Ray Samuels: Holding on to the death penalty is serious mistake,” Oakland Tribune, December 22, 2008.
- 3. Testimony before the New York State Assembly, February 8, 2005.
- 4. Murder rates based on FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, cited by the Death Penalty Information CenterMurder rates based on the years 1990 to 2010. FBI’s Crime in the United States cited by the Death Penalty Information Center. Law enforcement murder rates based on the years 1996 to 2011. FBI’s Statistics on Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted RePorts 2006-2011 and FBI’s 2006 Uniform Crime Report - Law Enforcement Officers Feloniously Killed, Table 1.
- 5. “Homicide at low for state since 1975”, Associated Press. January 30, 2012
- 6. NJ Attorney General Anne Milgram, quoted in "Armed with statistics, Milgram readies for departure", NJ Star Ledger, December 30, 2009.
- 7. D. Nagin and J. Pepper, "Deterrence and the Death Penalty," Committee on Law and Justice at the National Research Council, April 2012.
- 8. Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock, "Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists," Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Northwestern University School of Law, June 2009.
- 9. May 2006 Gallop poll.
- 10. National Survey of Police Chiefs Report in "Smart on Crime." Death Penalty Information Center.
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