Death Penalty and Civil Society
By Vernon Petersen at Jan 07, 2009
When I was much younger, say, back in my less than triumphant university days, I would always proudly proclaim that I was against the death penalty. This often led to heated arguments with those who fancied that they were saving humanity from any would be violent criminal with their tough stand, but truth be told, we were all very juvenile with our under developed opinions. I didn't understand 30 years ago why I should take a stand against something that deep down I believed to be immoral, I simply had this gut level belief that state sponsored death somehow violated my sense of what a better society should look like. I was an under developed socialist 30 years ago as well, but that's another blog entry. I've never given up on those deeply held beliefs, but I've certainly become better informed. I've since taken control over my own education; in other words, I've taken ownership of my learning, which is something I didn't do while I was attending university. Put another way, I'm a better student now than I was when I was formally attending school. I now consider myself to be on solid ground in my firm stand against the state ending a human life.
My approach to the death penalty is two fold:
First, capital punishment does not deter crime.
Second, I sincerely believe that if we lived in a more just society, we would witness less crime.
There is data to back both arguments, but let's take a look at the first point, which is very data rich in support of the claim. Off the top of my head, without research, we only need look at Houston, TX as an example. If capital punishment deterred crime, Houston would be the safest city in the U.S. But it's not; Houston has a murder rate far above the national average, while Texas is number one in the nation in executions. Let's dig deeper. Amnesty International, which has an excellent data base on the subject, reports that 11 of the 12 states without capital punishment have a homicide rate below the national average. This cannot be explained away with the contention, as supporters of capital punishment love to do, that the reason Texas, or Florida, executes more prisoners, is because they have a higher murder rate. No, the data clearly shows that there is no relationship to crime, on one hand, and possible punishment, on the other. To quote Amnesty International: "The threat of execution at some future date is unlikely to enter the minds of those acting under the influence of drugs and /or alcohol, those who are in the grip of fear or rage, those who are panicking while committing another crime, or those who suffer from mental illness or mental retardation and do not understand the gravity of their crime." On the flip side, supporters of capital punishment cannot contend that the lack of the death penalty in Michigan has resulted in it's higher than average murder rate. The devil is in the details, and we need to dig much deeper.
Since 1976, there have been 1,136 executions in the United States, as of this date, and a huge majority of those have been in the South, 936, where Texas alone accounted for 423. In 2007, the FBI reported that the South also had the highest murder rate per 100,000, which is consistent with previous years; Rates of 7 per 100,000 in the South, 5.3 in the West, 4.9 in the Midwest, 4.1 in the Northeast, and 5.6 Nationally. Or, from another perspective, the South had the highest murder rate and accounted for 80% of the executions, while the Northeast accounted for less than 1% of executions and had the lowest murder rate. But it's not enough to just crunch numbers, a 1976 survey of academic criminologists showed that 84% rejected the notion that the death penalty acted as a deterrent to murder, where 12% believed it did, and 4% had no opinion. (Death Penalty Information Center, Washington, D.C., quoting Radelet and Akers)
Number crunching is fine, but boring. Let's look at the systemic problems inherent in State Sponsored Death. Many people sentenced to death are innocent. Since 1973, according to Amnesty International, 130 people have been released after evidence was introduced showing their innocence. Next, and a surprise to those who fail to study the issue, the cost of the death penalty is more expensive than life in prison. According to the California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice, from a July 2008 study, the cost of the present system with the death penalty is $137 million, and $11.5 million for a system without the death penalty. Contrary to popular believe, life in prison without parole is a cost savings to the state. Next, there are racial disparities in sentencing for capital punishment. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, in a 1990 report, "The single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim." The American Bar Association in 2007 concluded that "one-third of African-American death row inmates in Philadelphia would have received sentences of life imprisonment if they had not been African-American." Again, the University of Maryland concluded in 2003 that "race and geography are major factors in death penalty decisions......Specifically; prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the race of the victim is white, and less likely to seek a death sentence when the victim is African-American." And, yet again, Yale University concluded in 2007 that "African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white." Jim Crow is alive and well in the U.S. Criminal Justice System in the year 2009.
Let's take a look at my personal gut level belief that if we had a more just society, we would endure less criminal activity, including murder. I don't believe I'm unique here. I suppose anyone looking for an alternative to our competitive capitalist society, where we endure a gross dichotomy in wealth and living standards, will believe that a more just society will reduce crime, and especially homicide. Senator Harkin from Iowa, when running for President in 1988, had a primary theme that the best social program is a job. Where I believe he is correct, we need to go one step further. Senator Harkin is a Liberal in the Humphrey mold, but certainly no socialist. A job is good, but the opportunity to fulfill our personal potential, while at the same time making a positive contribution to our community, will give us the tools to feel good about who we are, while reducing our disconnect with our world at large. I maintain that a positive sense of place, grounded in community, solidarity with fellow citizens, and the positive feelings that our contributions will play an important role in society, will reduce homicide from national epidemic to very rare occurrences. In short, a better society will accomplish more than one million police officers in the street. The former is a better society; the latter is a state of siege.
OK, just a few more numbers. Most Police Chiefs in the U.S. do not believe that capital punishment is an effective tool to reduce crime. A 1995 Hart Research Poll of Chiefs found that only 1% believed that expanding the death penalty would reduce crime. 31% believed in reducing drug abuse, 17% believed in a better economy with better jobs, 16% believed in simplifying court rules, 15% wanted longer prison sentences, 10% wanted more police officers, and 3% wanted to reduce guns. Proponents of state sponsored death can't even get police administrators to agree with them. A May, 2006 Gallup Poll found more support for capital punishment among the general public, 47% claiming support, with 48% against and 5% no opinion. That said, support is down from 80% in 1994, which is, no doubt, a crisis in confidence. Although I've found no data to support this contention, perhaps the public's vote of no confidence in the death penalty is a result of the growing number of prisoners being found innocent with new DNA testing. One need not have an over active imagination to understand that our criminal justice system has taken the life of many innocent people.
It's time that the Unites States joined the civilized world and recognized Resolution 62/149, approved by the UN General Assembly, "which called for all states (that's nation states) that still maintain the death penalty to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty". There are many ways we can progress to a more humane society of peace and harmony, but abolition of the death penalty should be first on the list.
I encourage everyone who agrees with our need to abolish this barbaric practice to visit Amnesty International, as well as the Death Penalty Information Center, on the web. Most of my information for this blog entry came from those two sites, as well as the FBI.
If I only knew 30 years ago what I know now.....perhaps I could have managed a few more A and B grades instead of my usual "C is good enough" attitude. But, that would have required work!