Thursday, September 22, 2011
One of the persuasive arguments in favor of continuing our practice of putting convicted murderers to death is that it acts as a deterrent. It is believed that the possibility of being executed for the crime makes many would-be murderers think again and spare the lives of their victims. This thought was once expressed very clearly by a former Chief of Police of Los Angeles. Even if there is an occasional mistake and an innocent person is executed, on balance the existence and enforcement of the death penalty saves lives. Balance the lives of those who are not killed by their criminal attackers against the innocent people killed by the State of California. The net loss of innocent lives is reduced where the death penalty exists and is carried out.
That Police Chief's argument is an example of "the way things ought to be." It is reasonable and ought to be the case that the fear of being executed deters many murderers. Statistics in which murder rates in States with the death penalty, such as California and Texas, are compared with similar data in States that don't have it, such as Michigan, do not show that the murder rate is less in the death penalty States than in those that don't have it. If anything, non-death-penalty States show lower murder rates than death-penalty States.
Is there a reasonable explanation of this seemingly counter-intuitive result? Why isn't the murder rate lower in California than in Michigan? Perhaps California doesn't execute people often enough. Then compare Texas with Michigan. Why isn't the murder rate a lot lower in Texas than in Michigan? A possible explanation is that we should put the argument the other way around. The death penalty is popular in places where murder is fairly common. In countries in which murder rarely occurs, there is no strong sentiment for the death penalty.
In spite of statistical evidence to the contrary, Americans continue to believe that the death penalty deters murder and are in favor of keeping it, by a majority of about sixty percent. This majority declines a bit when a case of mistaken conviction and execution of an innocent person is widely publicized. Such mistakes are usually not publicized, for two reasons. First, the authorities don't want to air the fact that they have made a mistake. Second, the work of proving the innocence of a convict depends mostly on dedicated volunteers, including lawyers and investigators and forensic experts. One the convict, innocent or not, has been put to death, there is no point of continuing the effort. Resources must then be allocated to another convict who is still alive as well as probably innocent.
Labels: death penalty; popular opinion