September 14 2012
Thinking about the Death Penalty
Today, 17 states including the District of Colombia have abolished capital punishment, and California could join them. In November, Californians will vote on Proposition 34, which would abolish the state’s death penalty. A recent California poll found that for Proposition 34, 30% were certain to vote Yes, 46% were certain to vote No, and 23% were not certain how they would vote. Twenty-eight percent of California women said they would vote to repeal the death penalty, and 43% said they would not. Thirty-three percent of men said they would vote to repeal the death penalty, and 49% said they would not.
National Public Radio recently hosted two individuals on Forum to debate Proposition 34, and the discussion focused significantly on cost-cutting opportunities in the criminal justice system. A frequently cited study finds that the death penalty costs Californians an extra $184 million annually. It admits to using an unverified number to estimate the annual cost of keeping an inmate on death row. Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation and the anti-Prop 34 guest on the show, argued that real expense-cutting opportunities exist with the number of frivolous appeals that occur in capital cases. Most important, he mentioned that California taxpayers will probably spend just as much to execute a criminal as they will to keep him in prison for life.
If Mr. Scheidegger is right in stating that the costs are comparable to execute a criminal as to keep him in prison for life, this directs the debate away from a nonetheless important subject of cost, and toward the idea of whether the death penalty, or alternatively life in prison, is the right thing to do.
The United States is a unique Western country which still uses the death penalty, a fact which unsurprisingly came up in the recent NPR discussion. Mr. Scheidegger noted that citizens in most states still support the death penalty, and state government policies on the death penalty are closely aligned with the views of the people. A 2010 Washington Post piece titled "Five myths about the death penalty" by New York University professor of Law and Sociology David Garland confirmed that "...majorities in other Western countries support capital punishment, too. Their political leaders abolished the institution nevertheless..." He added that they did so because "...they believed it was the right thing to do, because their nations' constitutions gave them the power to do so, and because bipartisan action and strong political parties provided cover against voter disapproval."
Garland also noted that in 2010, among the states that used the death-penalty, "one-third rarely [sentenced] anyone to death and another third [imposed] death sentences but rarely [carried] them out." Garland noted that in many states, the only criminals who are executed are "volunteers" or death row inmates who abandon the appeals process. He also notes that death sentences are largely carried out in the Southern part of the country and in Texas.
Nevertheless, when asked, “Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?” (note that this question asks about "murder" generally) Gallup’s most recent 2011 poll on the death penalty showed that 61% of Americans approve, down slightly from 64% in 2010. Fifty-eight percent of American women still support the death penalty for a person convicted of murder (38% are opposed), while 64% of men support the death penalty (32% are opposed). A separate question was asked in 2010 about whether Americans preferred the death penalty to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole for persons convicted of murder. Respondents were split almost down the middle with 49% saying the death penalty is the better penalty for murder, while 46% chose life imprisonment.
As expected, the respective costs of the death penalty versus life imprisonment without parole are hotly contested in California. If the costs are basically comparable (and even if they're not) citizens should consider what constitutes appropriate or sufficient responses to certain kinds of murder. Is our commitment to the death penalty in the US a reflection of the majority's desire for retribution in the case of the worst crimes, or are we committed to an antiquated or unnecessary form of punishment?