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Thursday, May 21, 2015


Like nearly two thirds of Americans, as a young man I was in favor of the death penalty.  Since I lived in Nebraska, that was an easy position to take - one not likely to cause conflict with friends and neighbors, should the subject come up.  I don't recall anyone asking, but I'm sure I'd have easily justified my beliefs based on a few obvious "facts":
  • The death penalty reduces the crime rate.
  • Some people are so evil the world would be a better place without them.
  • Taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for food, housing, medical care, etc. for convicted killers
If pressed, my principal objection to the practice of executing prisoners would be the long period of time between sentencing and carrying out the sentence.

Fortunately, with age comes wisdom, and I've come to understand that the death penalty is ineffective, expensive, and unfairly applied.  It's impossible to determine cause and effect with statistics, but a comparison of murder rates between death penalty and non death penalty states shows a consistently lower rate in the latter (of course, this statistic is likely skewed by the fact that over a third of the executions since 1976 have been carried out in Texas, and nearly 90% are in the south.

 OK, so maybe the death penalty doesn't actually prevent crime, but at least we're executing only the very worst offenders, right?  Actually, no - do we really think over 30% of the worst people in the country commit crimes in Texas?  Then there's this (from The ACLU Race and the Death Penalty):

University of Iowa law professor David Baldus found that during the 1980s prosecutors in Georgia sought the death penalty for 70 % of black defendants with white victims, but for only 15% of white defendants with black victims.

So, if we aren't necessarily executing the worst offenders, we can at least take solace in our knowledge that all of these criminals deserve severe punishment, right?  Again, no - a recent study estimates that about 4% of death row inmates are innocent!  If you think a 96% success rate is good enough, think about how you'd feel if one out of every 25 airline flights blew up on take off - I suspect you'd be a lot less excited about your next trip to Los Vegas!

Since we aren't always executing the worst criminals - and in fact are almost certainly executing the innocent - it seems kind of silly to talk about how much money the death penalty saves us, but, what the heck, let's do it anyway.  Is this racist, ineffective, inaccurate system really worth it because it just saves us so stinking much money?  Care to take a guess?  How much money does the average death sentence save us?  Accurate costs are difficult to come up with, but most studies show a death penalty case may cost $1 million more than a non death penalty case.  Typically, a prison inmate costs about $50,000 per year to house - a cost that will be somewhat higher for the death row inmate who may take a dozen years or more to exhaust his appeals.  While both sides may claim the economy argument, it's clear there is, at best, little or no cost advantage to executions.

Recently, the death penalty has been in the news in Nebraska.  Although I  no longer live in the Cornhusker State, I still follow the news - or at least read the headlines.  I knew Ernie Chambers had been working for years to try to eliminate the practice in the state, but I assumed he was tilting at windmills.  Much to my surprise, a bill to eliminate the death penalty in Nebraska recently passed by a 2 to 1 margin!  Nebraska's Governor - a Republican, of course - has vowed to veto the bill, but it appears support in the Unicameral is strong enough to override the veto.

If Nebraska does do away with the death penalty, it will represent an amazing victory for progressives in the state.  I've long felt that Ernie Chambers was a great - and largely unappreciated - asset to the state, and this may be his most lasting legacy.  We can only hope this is a trend we'll see repeated throughout the country.


  1. Great post, Gregg. I was surprised by that action in the Unicameral, too.

    I have no sympathy for violent criminals. For some of them, I'd pull the switch myself. Sure, no one is born evil, and we could do a lot more to address the circumstances which create crime. But that's not an excuse.

    I still oppose the death penalty, for the reasons you state. In particular, we're not infallible, and we're never going to be infallible. It's bad enough to imprison an innocent person, let alone to kill him. Our fear and our bloodlust aren't worth that.

    And we can't fix fallibility. Perfect isn't an option. We can, and should, improve our justice system. Even convicting innocent people to prison is terrible. But we're never going to be infallible.

  2. Hello Gregg,

    Great insights on death penalty and criminal activities. Totally loved your post. Thanks!