Experience Shows No “Parade of Horribles” Following Abolition of the Death Penalty

States that have recently abolished the death penalty have not experienced the “parade of horribles”—including increased murder rates—predicted by death-penalty proponents, according to death-penalty experts who participated in a panel discussion at the 2017 American Bar Association national meeting in New York City. Instead, the panelists said, abolition appears to have created opportunities to move forward with other broader criminal justice reforms. The transcript of that panel presentation, Life After the Death Penalty: Implications for Retentionist States, which was posted by the ABA on January 3, features discussion of the political factors that contributed to repeal and research into the effects of death-penalty abolition in those states in which repeal has recently occurred. The panel discussion, jointly hosted by the American Bar Association Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and the New York City Bar Association in August 2017, featured four speakers with backgrounds in death-penalty activism, reform, or research: Thomas P. Sullivan, Co-Chair of the 2000 Commission on Capital Punishment in Illinois; Shari Silberstein, Executive Director of Equal Justice USA; Celeste Fitzgerald,& former Director of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; and Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. The first three speakers described the circumstances that led to abolition in the six states that legislatively repealed or judicially abolished capital punishment between 2007 and 2014 and explained how abolition sponsors overcame opponents' arguments that, as Fitgerald characterized it, “abolition would bring about a 'parade of horribles.'” Silberstein summarized those worries, saying, “The death penalty proponents' arguments were all the traditional ones you would expect. They talked about the bloodbath that would come if there were no death penalty: murders would spike; the killings of police officers would spike; killings of corrections officers would spike.” Dunham discussed DPIC's research on three decades of murder rates in the U.S., which, he said, shows that abolition of the death penalty had no discernible effect on murder rates in general or murder rates of police and corrections officers killed in the line of duty. Dunham said that if the arguments advanced by death-penalty proponents were factually supported, murder rates in general and the rates at which police and corrections officers were killed should have risen after states abolished the death penalty, both in those states and in comparison to trends in other states. And, Dunham said, “if—as opponents of death-penalty abolition had argued—police officers were especially vulnerable without the death penalty and its repeal would lead to 'open season on police officers,' you'd expect to see not just an increase in the rate at which police officers were killed, but an increase in the number of murders of police officers as a percentage of all homicides.” None of this happened, he said. Instead, murders of law enforcement officers were much lower in the states that recently abolished the death penalty. “[T]he death penalty appears to make no measurable contribution to police safety,” Dunham said. The panelists also observed that repeal of capital punishment had created an opportunity for additional criminal justice reform. Sullivan noted that, prior to repeal, “[a] great deal of time, attention, and effort were spent on the few cases that involved the death penalty in Illinois, while little attention was given to the huge number of people who were convicted and incarcerated for crimes. All that time, attention, and money can now be shifted to reforming the entire Illinois criminal justice system. That would mean that there has been a double benefit from having abolished the death penalty in Illinois.” Silberstein said that in New York, abolition permitted “stakeholders who could not talk to each other in the same way when the death penalty was on the table because [of] differences over the death penalty” to discuss “how best to achieve the key goals of safety and healing [and] work on increasing funding and programs to reduce violence.”

(Panel discussion, Life After the Death Penalty: Implications for Retentionist States, ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, August 14, 2017.) See Deterrence. Read an explanation of the data and methods DPIC used to conduct the research here.