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 the death penalty is only a distraction from their goal of public safety.

It is just absurd that we would pull officers from the streets and at the same time spend millions of dollars to have a death penalty system that has not been proven to prevent crime.

— Daryl K. Roberts, former Police Chief of Hartford, Connecticut

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 fail to lower murder rates

  • A simple comparison reveals that states without the death penalty actually have lower murder rates than those with the death penalty. The South conducts the majority of executions, yet the murder rate there is higher than any other region in the US. The South also accounts for more law enforcement officers killed than any other region.4
  • In states that have repealed the death penalty, there has been no subsequent spike in murder rates. In fact, the murder rate has fallen in New York, New Mexico, Illinois, and Connecticut in the years after they repealed the death penalty. 5
  • Homicides of law enforcement officials have also decreased in states after they repeal the death penalty.6
I have experienced countless violent crime scenes... Of the accused murderers my fellow officers and I have brought to justice, I do not believe any of them was deterred in the least by Nebraska’s death penalty.

— Police Sergeant Jim Davidsaver, 20-year veteran of the Lincoln, Nebraska Police Department

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 changes such as reducing drug abuse or improving the economy were more important than 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. For these reasons, some law enforcement have changed their minds and now oppose the death penalty.
  • Corrections officers and wardens who have participated in executions have found the experience takes a toll. From Texas to Florida to Oregon, corrections officers have experienced mental health problems, alcohol abuse, and other problems from the stress of the death penalty.

We’ve learned a lot about the death penalty in the last 40 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 believe there are better ways to keep us safe.

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  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 Nationally and by State,” Death Penalty Information Center and “2013 Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted,” FBI Uniform Crime Reports.
  5. “Murder Rates Nationally and by State,” Death Penalty Information Center.
  6. “Facts about law enforcement deaths by homicides in states that have ended the use of the death penalty since 2007” – data compiled by George Kain, Ph.D. and Terrence Dwyer, Esq., using the Officer Down Memorial Page.
  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. “Death Penalty,” Gallup, 2011.
  10. National Survey of Police Chiefs Report in “Smart on Crime,” Death Penalty Information Center.