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Judging the Death Penalty

June 30th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon

homiciderates.gif

On Monday, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice—the committee created by the California State Senate
to study, among other criminal justice issues, the state of the death penalty in sunny California—released a 117-age report saying that the system is pretty much screwed. (Okay, I don’t believe they used the term “screwed.” They said “deeply flawed,” but that qualifies as an equivalent.) California has the biggest backlog of cases in the nation, noted the report, and for all intents and purposes, the system, said the commission members, is close to collapse.

Among the commission’s recommended remedies is the suggestion that California drastically cut the number of crimes that qualify for the death penalty, leaving only multiple murders, the killing of law enforcement officials or witnesses, and the torture of murder victims—all heinous enough.

(I should mention here that, in the past, the commission has made recommendations
on other issues, most of which have resulted in bills being passed by the California state legislature—that have all been vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. But whatever. We won’t go there for the moment.)

This recommendation comes right in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision
to disallow the use of capital punishment for child rapists who do not kill their victims. Then, a few months before, the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Kentucky, specifically, could resume using lethal injection in order to execute those on the state’s death row. But the court wrote the decision in such a way that it clearly opened the door to other legal challenges.

So, change of some sort is in the wind
with regard to the death penalty. But what kind of change?

At least one facet of the newest SCOTUS rulings is examined
in this Washington Post Op Ed written by Cass R. Sunstein and Justin Wolfers, two of the nation’s top researchers when it comes to the matter of whether the death penalty is truly a deterrent or not.

Here’s how the Op Ed opens:


To support their competing conclusions on the legal issue,
different members of the court invoked work by each of us on the deterrent effects of the death penalty. Unfortunately, they misread the evidence.

Justice John Paul Stevens cited recent research by Wolfers (with co-author John Donohue) to justify
the claim that “there remains no reliable statistical evidence that capital punishment in fact deters potential offenders.” Justice Antonin Scalia cited a suggestion by Sunstein (with co-author Adrian Vermeule) that “a significant body of recent evidence” shows “that capital punishment may well have a deterrent effect, possibly a quite powerful one.”

What does the evidence actually say?

To find out….read it. But here’s an interesting bit of thinking from the essay’s conclusion:


Why is the Supreme Court debating deterrence?
A prominent line of reasoning, endorsed by several justices, holds that if capital punishment fails to deter crime, it serves no useful purpose and hence is cruel and unusual, violating the Eighth Amendment. This reasoning tracks public debate as well. While some favor the death penalty on retributive grounds, many others (including President Bush) argue that the only sound reason for capital punishment is to deter murder.

We concur with Scalia that if a strong deterrent effect
could be demonstrated, a plausible argument could be made on behalf of executions. But what if the evidence is inconclusive?

We are not sure how to answer that question.
But as executions resume, the debates over the death penalty should not be distorted by a misunderstanding of what the evidence actually shows.

And what if the evidence shows that it is negligible as a deterrent, what then?

PS: To further help your own thinking on this issue, here’s a link to to some of the death penalty facts and figures gathered by my colleagues at the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism.

Posted in crime and punishment, Death Penalty, State government | 14 Comments »

14 Responses

  1. Woody Says:

    Your charts prove nothing. It would be more accurate, and horribly offensive to liberals, to have charts showing murder rates against percentages of blacks in the states. Is it possible that there are other factors besides whether or not states have the death penalty? Celeste, THINK.

    I guess I thought of that because a state road gang is out front cleaning excess asphalt from our curbs after our road was just repaved. All of the prisoners that I saw were black, which I’m sure has to do with injustice rather than anything that they did–which I’m certain that you believe.

    BTW, I didn’t read the entire post and links. Too many words.

  2. Pokey Says:

    The purpose of the death penalty is more than just deterrence.

    Death penalty goals:
    1. Closure for the victim’s family, friends and society.
    2. Justice (Webster – the punishment fits the crime)
    3. Deterrence of crime (Webster – the inhibition of criminal behavior by fear especially of punishment).

    Most can agree that the death penalty accomplishes the first two goals, it appears that only the goal of deterring crimes seems to in question lately.

    The last public execution in America was August 14, 1936 attended by 20,000 people.

    You will have a hard time convincing anyone that the 20,000 people who witnessed this public execution were not deterred from committing similar crimes for the rest of their lives.

    If you feel that deterrence is a requirement of capital punishment, than I suggest that we bring back public executions. If this would be too much for your delicate stomach, maybe only inmates should be able to view the execution, since this population is probably 100 times more likely to commit murder in the future and they would be the most important to deter.

    For our schools, I believe that an appropriate educational film showing an execution would do more to reduce crime than all the other gang intervention programs combined.

  3. Randy Paul Says:

    Most can agree that the death penalty accomplishes the first two goals, it appears that only the goal of deterring crimes seems to in question lately.

    Not these people. Not my wife, nor her family, who lost a brother and son to murder and a cousin to murder, but vehemently oppose the death penalty.

  4. Randy Paul Says:

    Elie Wiesel lost his parents and younger sister in the Holocaust and opposes the death penalty. Coretta Scott King lost her husband and mother-in-law to murder and she opposed the death penalty.

    I’ll leave to Bud Welch to say it best: “The death penalty is about revenge and hate, and revenge and hate is why my daughter and those 167 other people are dead today.”

    Bud Welch, father of Julie Marie Welch, victim in the Oklahoma City bombing

  5. Cozette Says:

    It’s time that Californians started making rational decisions about the death penalty. The fact is, we just cannot afford to continue capital punishment in this state. The best estimates indicate that California would save $117 million EVERY YEAR if everyone on death row was sentenced to permanent imprisonment instead. That’s $117 million more per year that we could spend on teachers, or police, or any number of things that actually make us safer. Furthermore, permanent imprisonment has all of the benefits of the death penalty, with very few of the drawbacks. It permanently incapacitates dangerous criminals, it provides severe punishment for severe crimes, it frees up resources for effective public safety measures, and it brings closure to victims’ families sooner (often several decades sooner) than seeking a death sentence.

  6. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Excellent points, Cozette. This is much of the material that came out in the report, which—as you say—California would honestly be wise to heed.

  7. Pokey Says:

    Victocrat emotion filled responses aside. The point is:
    1) Justice requires an appropriate punishment. For a child rapist, this might be being sodomized by a bull moose repeatedly. (a reality in some prisons)
    2) Closure for the bereaved victims family (this could be life in prison, solitary confinement or execution)
    3) Deterrence and prevention – is desirable for all involved.

    My point was that we want to prevent murders, like the ones pointed out by Randy. How best can we accomplish this is the question.

    Some people equate capital punishment with revenge and hate. But are these people thinking with their heart or their brains?

    Everyone know that punishment deters!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Senseless drunk driving deaths have been reduces dramatically by harsh penalties, the publication of these penalties and education.

    Maybe a video showing the impact of murder on the victim family, and the murder, with the murder spending his life in prison watching TV and playing basketball would be a deterrent if shown to people. You tell me.

  8. Pokey Says:

    Most of the $117 million is the extra $61 million dollars a year to keep an inmate on death row rather than locked up in a general prison.

    Cozette, I agree with you, lets SAVE MONEY and put them back in the general prison population.

  9. Randy Paul Says:

    But are these people thinking with their heart or their brains?

    What makes you think that they are not thinking with both?

  10. Romy Says:

    Cozette is right – its time to think rationally about the death penalty, the state of our budget, and our shared public safety concerns. We could use the saved resources to solve more homicides, which will make our communities safer. We’re also doing a serious disservice to victims of violent crime by not providing enough funding for counseling and other resources, and could use money to support them. We need to take the Commission’s suggestion to heart and think dispassionately about how to achieve our shared goals.

  11. AC Says:

    –Permanent imprisonment has all of the benefits of the death penalty, with very few of the drawbacks.–

    It also allows murders to repent and make amends for their crimes.

  12. Woody Says:

    Why do you need a commission? Just do what the legislature and the voters want–capital punishment, swift and sure. That would save money.

    From California’s death penalty commission

    In one (dissenting statement), five law enforcement commissioners complained that the majority was “seeking to undermine public confidence” in the death penalty and that the report “unmistakenly reveals a personal bias” against capital punishment.

    In polls, Californians have supported capital punishment by a margin of 2 to 1 and have repeatedly voted to toughen sentencing laws.

  13. Very Uninformed Writes Says:

    “Furthermore, permanent imprisonment has all of the benefits of the death penalty, with very few of the drawbacks. It permanently incapacitates dangerous criminals, it provides severe punishment for severe crimes, it frees up resources for effective public safety measures, and it brings closure to victims’ families sooner (often several decades sooner) than seeking a death sentence.

    Excellent points, Cozette. “

    ***********************************

    I suggest the uninformed learn about the Mexican Mafia prison gang leaders most of who are in prison. There have been hundreds of muders carried out on the street under orders of the “incapcitated” criminals. A dead mexican mafia member will be truly incapacitated.

    Here are but a few recent cases, which are very common. The Mexian Mafia and L.A. gangs are spreading all over the country, jail DOES NOT STOP the mexican mafia.

    Just google “mexican mafia” news, and learn before misinforming others.

    http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/state/20080628-1042-ca-gangplot.html

    http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/palmbeach/sfl-flprico0626pnjun28,0,7646164.story

    http://www.dailynews.com/news/ci_9695251

    http://www.northjersey.com/news/aroundnj/100_held_as_gang_members_statewide.html

  14. Woody Says:

    Very Uninformed, note today’s post by Celeste about a murder ordered by a gang member while being held in jail for another murder. Why can’t Celeste connect the two?

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