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Fri May 15, 2015, 08:46 PM

Thoughts on the Death Penalty [View all]

Four arguments are commonly made in opposition to the death penalty. Let me review them before moving on to the particular concerns I want to discuss. Here, then, are the traditional arguments:

First, we have no need for a death penalty to protect ourselves from murderers because Wisconsin law permits us to put them in prison for life without hope of ever being released.

Second, it is expensive to seek the death penalty. Studies in other states have shown that it costs more to sentence a murderer to death and then wade through the appeals process than it would have to simply imprison the criminal for life.

Third, there is always the possibility of executing an innocent person. Some people seem to think that the use of DNA evidence is an absolutely certain means of avoiding such errors, but that is simply not so. Any number of events, ranging from misbehavior on the part of police officers to errors at the crime lab, could bring about terrible miscarriages of justice.

And fourth, there is no evidence that the death penalty deters crime. Just consider for a moment—can you imagine criminals thinking to themselves, “I want to go on a killing spree, but they will put me to death if they catch me, so I won’t do it. However, I would go out and murder a bunch of people if all I had to face was life without parole.”

If you think the death penalty is somehow going to make you safer, how do you explain this?—Murder rates per 100,000 population range from a low of 1.2 in Maine to a high of 13.0 in Louisiana. Twelve states, including Wisconsin, have no death penalty. The average murder rate for these states is 2.90. The remaining 38 states have the death penalty. Their murder rate per hundred thousand residents is 5.3. The probability of this being a chance result is less than one in a hundred.

At 3.3 murders per 100,000, Wisconsin has a slightly higher murder rate than the average for states without the death penalty, but considerably lower than the average for states with the death penalty. Why, then, should we be in any hurry to legalize the death penalty and thereby join the group of states with the higher murder rates?

Another question—Might there be something about having a death penalty that causes states to have a higher murder rate? I think there may be a connection. Let us make no bones about it. To approve the death penalty is to assert that it is permissible for a large number of people—the state—to gang up and put one of its members to death. When a state authorizes executions, it is in effect saying that killing is not only permissible, but is in fact desirable, in some circumstances, including circumstances that do not involve immediate self-defense. Children learn both behaviors and attitudes by the example of their elders. From what we know of child development, there is every reason to imagine that children who grow up in a society that approves the killing of human beings will have lower inhibitions against killing than do children whose society teaches an absolute intolerance of killing.

Wisconsin has never executed a criminal since attaining statehood in 1848, and explicitly forbade the practice in 1853. This is a proud tradition that I believe to be worth keeping.

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