by Dr. Michael L. Radelet, Professor of Sociology, University of Colorado, Boulder
The ways that Americans debate the death penalty have changed dramatically in the past thirty years. Retribution and the need to help families of homicide victims have replaced deterrence as the top pro-death penalty argument, while concerns about erroneous convictions, disparities, cost, and whether the penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst have become the most common points raised by abolitionists.
Both sides agree, however, that the burden of proof is on those who advocate its use. In other words, we should not take a human life unless it is an absolute necessity and unless the goals of executions cannot be achieved by alternative non-lethal means. Perhaps the most crucial change in Nebraska law since the 1970s is that the alternative to execution is no longer 12-15 years in prison before parole eligibility. Today, in all the 33 states that still authorize death sentences, anyone eligible for the death penalty who is not sentenced to death will automatically be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Once convicted, we know the offender will never get out of prison.
Another change is that all agree that the costs of the death penalty have skyrocketed. Numerous studies from around the U.S. have uniformly concluded that the costs of the death penalty are astronomical, and several times more than the costs of life imprisonment without parole. Nonetheless, with a stunning lack of transparency, the Nebraska legislature has refused to initiate a study that will give us precise cost estimates for this state. Some citizens may support the death penalty in theory, but conclude that it should be abolished simply because we can use the money to more effectively achieve the death penalty’s goals.
And what goals are executions alleged to achieve that cannot be attained by life imprisonment? A 2012 study by a blue ribbon commission of the National Academy of Sciences failed to find any evidence of a superior deterrent effect, and a 2009 survey of America’s top criminologists found that 90 percent reached a similar conclusion.
Certainly we all recognize the need to help families of homicide victims. However, with 2,000 homicides in the state since 1973 and only three executions and eleven currently on death row, the death penalty does absolutely nothing for the vast majority of victims’ families.
Arguably, the top priority for these families is that the offender is caught and convicted. In 1960, over 90 percent of homicides in the U.S. were solved. That fell to 79 percent in 1976 and to 62 percent in 2005. In other words, nearly four out of every ten murderers today are never apprehended. Investing in efforts to solve these cases would not only aid the families, but make our communities safer by removing murderers from our streets. The death penalty, by contrast, spends millions of dollars to exact an extra measure of revenge on a tiny fraction of murderers who are already behind bars.
If we leave the question to the leaders of Nebraska’s largest religious denominations, the death penalty would be scrapped today. The Catholic Bishops have taken a firm position in opposition, as has the leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA, and United Methodist Church.
Public support for the death penalty in America has fallen dramatically in the past two decades. A 1994 Gallup Poll found that 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty.
Today the pollsters tell us that Americans are evenly split between the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole. Five states have abolished the death penalty in recent years, and the number of new death sentences is at its lowest level in thirty years. Last year the countries with the most executions were China, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, and the USA. We are not in good company.
I firmly believe that the more people know about the death penalty, the more likely they will be to oppose it, and that we will see the end of the death penalty in the U.S. in the very near future. Nebraska should be among the states that lead the way.
Michael L. Radelet is a Professor of Sociology, University of Colorado, Boulder.