Like many Americans, I have long had an uneasy sense of the death penalty in this country. In order to fully support it, you have to have complete faith in our justice system and in the value of deterrence. Recently the latter has been strongly challenged: A new study shows that 88% of the country's top criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide. The study was published earlier this week in Northwestern University School of Law's Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology authored by Professor Michael Radelet, Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and Traci Lacock, an attorney and Sociology grad student in Boulder.
"Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists," relied on questionnaires completed by the most pre-eminent criminologists in the country. Fully 75% of them agree that "debates about the death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime problems." Respondents were not asked for their personal opinions about the wisdom of the death penalty, but instead to answer the questions only on the basis of their understanding of the empirical research.
Given this latest study, it is difficult for me to see any reason for our nation to maintain a policy of executing criminals. Several men and women have been released from prison -- and death row -- over the past decade. Some were just days away from execution. But upon review of DNA and other evidence, they were determined to be innocent. If such a determination had not been made, innocent Americans would have been put to death. Right now, a man who may well be innocent, Troy Davis, is facing execution in Georgia. Seven of nine witnesses have recanted their testimony against him, but no court has ever heard his claim of innocence. Any day now, the U.S. Supreme Court may, or may not, intervene to save his life.
Furthermore, the cost of executing a prisoner is far greater than keeping him in prison for life. A recent New Jersey Policy Perspectives report concluded that the state's death penalty has cost taxpayers $253 million since 1983, a figure that is over and above the costs that would have been incurred had the state utilized a sentence of life without parole instead of death.
A number of states are currently considering repealing the death penalty. Just this week, former CA Attorney General John Van de Kamp called for an end to California's death penalty because it would save $1 billion over five years at a time when the state is near bankruptcy. Only three countries in the world -- China, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- execute more prisoners than the U.S. and more than 128 nations have abolished the death penalty.
This latest study validates the need for the U.S. to end a practice that harkens back to the days of the Wild West. If executions hold no value to deter other crimes and if we can't avoid the risk of executing the innocent and if they are overwhelmingly burdening state budgets, why not relegate them to history? To paraphrase an old tune, "Executions? What are they any good for? Absolutely nothing."