My Turn: Does death penalty deter murders? Argument doesn’t hold up
Occasionally readers of the Monitor are exposed to the writing of someone with the education and experience to think more critically. A recent example is former state Supreme Court justice Chuck Douglas’s column on the April 6 Sunday Monitor Forum page, arguing that the death penalty deters future murders.
Douglas begins with the argument that correctional officers need protection from murderers who are sentenced to life in prison, as the threat of the death penalty for inmates who kill a correctional officer provides that protection. If Douglas had worked inside the walls with me since the time he left the Supreme Court, he would perhaps understand that sentenced murderers are generally well-behaved inmates. Since prison will be their home for their remaining days, there actually is a deterrent against misbehavior. Lifers are generally accorded relative freedoms and respect inside the walls, and some are eventually paroled or moved to community corrections. I have met no lifers who were intent on making their “forever” home more aversive. Most were rather productive, positive inmates. Some of my favorite inmates, male and female, were convicted murderers.
If Douglas and others who hold this deterrence view were to review the statistics for the past 30 years, “untimely deaths” and assaults in prisons have declined while use of the death penalty has also declined. This decline in prison danger is more likely due to “direct supervision” architecture and management procedures that were developed during this time than the increasingly infrequent use of the death penalty.
Douglas also compares the deterrent effect of a ticket in the case of speeding to the death penalty in the case of some murders. Is he really comparing a violation-level non-crime to a capital-level felony? The mean time to a speeding citation is minutes. The mean time to execution is approximately 10 years. One quarter of condemned inmates die prior to execution. And many condemned inmates have their sentence commuted to life. Michael Addison, New Hampshire’s sole condemned inmate, is more than half way to the mean and no one has figured out the complicated process necessary for his execution.
Douglas further cites a 2007 study by two professors at Pepperdine University revealing a relationship “between number of executions and number of murders in the United States.” This study is so flawed that I used it in undergraduate courses to demonstrate bad research. In fact, the murder rate is declining even as the execution rate is declining.
States without the death penalty often have a lower murder rate than states with the death penalty. Though correlation does not mean causation, absent certain conditions, there is not a lot of support for deterrence when states without executions have lower murder rates than states that do. Delving into this deeper, when Furman v. Georgia suspended executions, and subsequent cases barred the execution of juveniles and the retarded, the murder rate continued to decline.
The only way to determine the cause-and-effect between the death penalty and the murder rate would be an experimental study where capital murders would be randomly assigned to a death or no-death sentence. As a former state Supreme Court justice, Douglas might want to advise us if such an experiment might be unconstitutional.
The death penalty does have value. Execution allows us to spend large amounts of money, better spent elsewhere, to kill someone. It keeps horrible killers, best quickly forgotten, in the news. It helps gets Kelly Ayotte elected to the U.S. Senate by using grieving parents in campaign ads. The death penalty may have value, but no one has established the death penalty is a deterrent.
(Maurice Regan lives in Pembroke.)