This article is in response to a contribution from Phalen Kuckuck: “3 reasons conservative millennials should oppose the death penalty.”
Support for the death penalty has precipitously fallen over the past two decades. Many use this data point to claim that a full death penalty repeal is near. However, the data says something else entirely.
Support for the death penalty peaked in 1994, just as the crack-cocaine boom came to an end and crime was the number one issue. In 1994, the murder rate was 9.0 out of every 100,000 people; by 2012, the murder rate has fallen to 4.7 out of every 100,000 people, almost a 50% decrease. If crime were to explode again, support of the death penalty would likely rise.
Despite decreasing crime, there are still many good reasons why the United States should continue to use the death penalty.
1) Innocents are worse off when the death penalty is banned
A sensational study in 2014 concluded that 1-of-25 people executed will turn out to be innocent. What people forget to mention, however, is that the same study says innocents may be worse off if the death penalty were not in place.
How can this be? On page two of the study, the authors say, “Capital defendants who are removed from death row but not exonerated—typically because their sentences are reduced to life imprisonment—no longer receive the extraordinary level of attention that is devoted to death row inmates. … If they are in fact innocent, they are much less likely to be exonerated than if they had remained on death row.”
In other words, due to the fact our society understands the irreversibility of execution, our government makes it very difficult to actually execute a criminal. There is a long, drawn out period where the appeals process can maximize the chance for an innocent to get released. The standard for evidence in capital cases is also much higher. In non-capital cases, where the highest sentence is life without parole, the standard for evidence is lower and fewer appeals are given, which makes it harder for those wrongly imprisoned to get out. Overall, that means death penalty abolition would harm, rather than help, innocent prisoners.
2) Death penalty costs are exaggerated
We often hear how the death penalty is expensive, and therefore conservatives should oppose it. These studies, however, never take into account plea bargaining, which allows the state to avoid trial entirely. The plea bargain effect alone makes the death penalty cost only 30% more than life without parole, according to a study by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. That’s hardly a backbreaking expense.
According to the book Lethal Injection: Capital Punishment in Texas During the Modern Era, written by liberal academics Jon Sorensen and Rocky Lean Pilgrim, the death penalty costs roughly the same as equivalent life without parole cases when geriatric care, plea bargains, and housing are taken into account.
3) The death penalty does, in fact, deter crime
Do experts think the death penalty fails to deter crime? No. Opponents of the death penalty love to cite a study by the Death Penalty Information Center which claims 88% of criminologists say the death penalty fails to deter murder. It’s bunk. The sample unanimously said that the death penalty deters at least some; the question is only whether or not the experts thought it was “significant.”
Economist Joanna Shepard’s 2004 study concluded that each execution deterred three additional murders. Is that significant? In Illinois, the governor commuting the sentence of all death row inmates led to an estimated 150 more homicides than there otherwise would have been. Is that significant?
We can debate whether or not the death penalty deters crime a “significant amount,” whatever that means, but no one can realistically say that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime at all.
The case against the death penalty is not nearly as strong as abolitionists, as they like to call themselves, would have you think. Costs aren’t exorbitantly high, innocents aren’t wantonly slaughtered, and lives are, in fact, saved. The death penalty should remain a part of our criminal justice system.