STUDIES: FBI Preliminary Crime Report for 2012

The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently released the preliminary findings of its annual Uniform Crime Report for 2012. The final report will likely be published in October, but the initial statistics indicate the number of murders in the U.S. increased slightly by 1.5% from 2011. Three regions of the country showed an increase in murders, while one region declined. Murders in the Northeast decreased by 4.4%. The number of murders increased by 3.3% in the Midwest, 2.5% in the South, and 2.5% in the West. The entire Northeast has not carried out an execution since 2005 and accounts for less than 1% of the executions in the country since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. It consistently has the lowest murder rate for the 4 regions. The South, which regularly has the highest murder rate, has been responsible for 82% of the executions; the Midwest 12%; and the West 6%.

NEW VOICES: Former Prosecutor Calls for Clemency in Upcoming Colorado Execution

The former Chief Deputy District Attorney from the county that prosecuted Nathan Dunlap has called on Colorado's governor to commute his death sentence to life without parole. Richard Bloch (pictured), who prosecuted dozens of homicide cases during his 20 years with the Arapahoe County DA’s office, said he believes the state’s capital punishment system is too broken to implement: “Having worked on many homicides, visited dozens of murder scenes, and, most importantly, spoken to many people who have committed violent actions against others, I understand from personal experience what so many studies show: that there is no evidence whatsoever that the death penalty deters crime and enhances public safety.” Bloch also noted the geographical and racial disparities in the state’s death penalty: all those on death row came from Arapahoe County and all are African American, even though blacks account for only 4.3% of the state’s population. Bloch wrote, “[W]e cannot ignore that the system that sentenced Mr. Dunlap to die is a system in crisis. Colorado can do better; Colorado is better than that.” Read full article below.

STUDIES: FBI Releases 2011 Crime Report Showing Drop in Murder Rates

On October 29, the U.S. Justice Department released the annual FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2011, indicating that the national murder rate dropped 1.5% from 2010. This decline occurred at a time when the use of the death penalty is also decreasing nationally.  The Northeast region, which uses the death penalty the least, had the lowest murder rate of the 4 geographic regions, and saw a 6.4% further decrease in its murder rate in 2011, the largest decrease of any region.  By contrast, the South, which carries out more executions than any other region, had the highest murder rate. It saw a small decline from last year. The murder rate in the West remained about the same, while the rate in the Midwest increased slightly.  Four of the five states with the highest murder rates are death-penalty states, while four of the five states with the lowest murder rates are states without the death penalty. See table below.

EDITORIALS: Evidence Does Not Support Death Penalty As Deterrent

Comparing State Homicide Rates
Click to enlarge

In a recent editorial, the Sacramento Bee of California sharply challenged the theory that the death penalty deters murders. The paper illustrated that homicide rates in California, New York and Texas have tracked virtually identically between 1974 and 2009, and yet each state has differed widely in its use of capital punishment (see chart). The editorial stated, “[D]uring that time Texas had 447 executions and New York had none; California had 13. Clearly, something other than executions has had an effect on declining murder rates. And that clearly is what we should focus on." The editorial also quoted a recent study conducted by the National Research Council finding that three decades of research on deterrence was “not informative” and “should not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide." On September 9, the Sacramento Bee announced it was reversing its historic 150-year support of the death penalty and endorsing the repeal of California's capital punishment law.  Read the recent editorial below.

NEW VOICES: Growing Concerns in Utah About High Cost of the Death Penalty

Legislators and other officials in Utah are expressing concerns about the high costs of the death penalty and its lack of deterrent effect. Speaking before the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee, Republican State Representative Steve Handy (pictured) said, “In today’s world, the death penalty is so infrequently used that I don’t believe it is any kind of a deterrent."  The Davis County prosecutor, Troy Rawlings, a proponent of the death penalty, nevertheless agreed that replacing the death penalty with life without parole "would remove some of the significant complications of cases and expedite them, as well as save money." According to legislative fiscal analyst Gary R. Syphus, it costs county governments $460,000 annually to defend and prosecute a capital murder case. The Law Enforcement Committee has ranked the death penalty the number one policy issue to study this year, and a committee at the University of Utah is also researching the costs of death penalty cases in the state. 

OP-ED: "Time to Kill the Death Penalty?"

John J. Donohue (pictured), a research associate for the National Bureau of Economic Research and a professor at Stanford Law School, recently highlighted continuing problems with the death penalty system, forty years after it was struck down for being applied in an arbitrary manner. Professor Donohue wrote that despite “new and improved” statutes accepted by the Court when it reinstated the death penalty in 1976, “four decades later, there is plenty of evidence that the death penalty continues to be applied in an unfair manner and not a shred of evidence that the death penalty deters.” Professor Donohue cited a recent finding by the National Research Council, which examined all deterrence studies over the past 35 years and concluded that the studies are “not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates” and “should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment.”  Professor Donohue also encouraged voters in California to replace the death penalty in November’s ballot. He said, “[D]espite the supposed improvements endorsed in 1976, the death penalty remains hopelessly broken… We have the chance to prevent innocent people from being executed, end the unfairness that pervades the current system, and save millions in tax revenues, all while improving public safety.”

MULTIMEDIA: "David R. Dow: Lessons from Death Row Inmates"

During a recent presentation, University of Houston Law Professor David R. Dow shared lessons learned from the 20 years during which he defended over 100 death row inmates. Professor Dow asserted that there are common factors in the lives of those who are currently facing capital punishment. Dow said, “[I]f you tell me the name of a death row inmate - doesn't matter what state he's in, doesn't matter if I've ever met him before - I'll write his biography for you. And eight out of 10 times, the details of that biography will be more or less accurate… Eighty percent of the people on death row are people who came from [some] sort of dysfunctional family…. Eighty percent of the people on death row are people who had exposure to the juvenile justice system.” Professor Dow asserts that intervention during earlier stages of defendants’ lives may be one of the most effective ways of preventing them from committing violent crimes later on: “People might disagree about whether [a murderer] should have been executed. But I think everybody would agree that the best possible version … would be a story where no murder ever occurs.” Professor Dow concludes that early intervention is also a more practical use of taxpayers’ money. He said, “[F]or every $15,000 that we spend intervening in the lives of economically and otherwise disadvantaged kids in those earlier chapters, we save $80,000 in crime-related costs down the road. Even if you don't agree that there's a moral imperative that we do it, it just makes economic sense.”

DETERRENCE: Why the Studies Have Failed to Produce Reliable Results

Two researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Professors Justin Wolfers (pictured) and Betsey Stevenson, recently explained why decades of studies have failed to show a reliable deterrent effect from the death penalty.  The authors cited a 2012 report from the National Academy of Sciences, concluding that the deterrence studies of the past 30 years “should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment.”  Wolfers and Stevenson explain why these studies cannot be relied on regarding whether the death penalty deters murder:
--the death penalty is applied extremely rarely (1 execution in 500 murders), which makes empirical study of its impact difficult to measure;
--homicide rates fluctuate for reasons completely unrelated to capital punishment (homicide rates tend to rise and fall roughly in unison across states, regardless of whether they have the death penalty);
--a more vigorous use of the death penalty likely occurs at the same time as other criminal justice changes, and it is impossible to separate the effects of the death penalty from the effects of these changes; and
--most importantly, there is no evidence on how potential murderers perceive the risk of execution if they are caught, which is key to determining whether capital punishment is a deterrent.