Capital Punishment is Not a National Problem

The death penalty isn’t something the United States does, it’s something a small number of states does prolifically

Janell Ross rounds up evidence that the use of the death penalty may be in retreat in the U.S.. Being strongly against capital punishment, I am pleased at developments. But death penalty opponents will not get to abolition if we strategize under the framing that it is something the “United States” does (as if often said, in contrast to all other Western developed nations).

In fact, the most important thing to know about the death penalty is that it is something only a small number of states do. If one state — Texas — abolished the death penalty its prevalence would drop by over a third (Texas has executed 503 of the 1342 people who have been put to death since the 1976 restoration of capital punishment). More broadly, as Ross notes, southern states today execute four times as many people as the rest of the states do combined.

What Americans as a whole think about the death penalty therefore doesn’t matter much. What matters is what people in Texas and Florida and Virginia think about the death penalty. Those are the hearts and minds that must be changed for this practice to end in this country.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

34 thoughts on “Capital Punishment is Not a National Problem”

  1. Well, that or we need to change out a few Supreme Court justices. There’s plenty of reason for that anyway. A few strokes of the pen could end this barbaric practice at once.

    Or are we supposed to believe that the Court will continue its rightward drift into a war on reality and modernity unchecked? Old age will eventually weed ’em out if they manage to avoid the rest of the common human frailties.

  2. Texas, were it a country, would rank just after Libya and Syria, by count of state-adjudicated killings. (This varies slightly by year.)

  3. unlike south carolina, texas is large enough to be a republic and, despite being a 7th generation native with a great love for my state, i find that it is not too large to be an insane asylum.

    in a 2010 survey 78% of texans either strongly supported or somewhat supported capital punishment. among democrats here the survey found 66% either strongly or somewhat supporting it. i have had an educated interlocutor chastise me for my opposition to capital punishment because my “support for murderers” made me unfit for civilized people to associate with. it’s easier to have a rational discussion of gun control than it is about the death penalty here and i don’t know why.

    the survey results i reference canbe found here–

    1. >unlike south carolina, texas is large enough to be a republic

      The population of South Carolina is almost 150 times that of the Republic of San Marino.

      1. i was alluding to a pre-civil war quote–

        “south carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”

        james l. petigru

        1. Now that you mention it, I think I’ve heard that quote somewhere.

          But I certainly wouldn’t have been able to tell you who said it.

          Anyway, thanks for cluing me in.

  4. Something has happened to your blog on my computer in the past week.
    The content is spread out across the page so that I have to scroll way to the right just to complete reading a line. I wonder what could have happened.

        1. Yes, explicitly specifying image display size works without the trouble of resizing the image smaller.

          1. WordPress does always specify the size in HTML view. Besides, bloggers always have the options both to scale images to a specified size, or just to set to “medium” or “thumbnail”. I limit my maximum image width to 600 pixels; a guess, but so far nobody has complained specifically about my posted images.

            I’m quite ready to change. As, according to the elder Udall, a candidate for Sheriff of Tombstone wound up his stump speech: “Them’s mah principles, ladies and gennelmen; and if you don’t like ’em, ah’ll change ’em.”

      1. Thanks for the tip Charles WT.

        Anna: I just moved the big photo from Harold’s Trayvon Martin post and the big chart from my prison post behind the fold. Does that fix the problem?

  5. “The fact that most Americans oppose the death penalty therefore doesn’t matter much.”

    Wait, what? Last I checked the death penalty had well over majority support.

    And when I checked today

    I find that support hasn’t been below fifty percent for my entire lifetime, and has been above sixty percent for almost forty years. (Peaking above 70% some years)

    I don’t support the death penalty because I don’t trust the government very much and know that it abuses it, not because I believe some murderers deserve to die. But we shouldn’t pretend to be the majority just because we feel we are right.

    1. I have a moral objection to the death penalty. You have the right to kill someone, if necessary, in self defense. But, once you have someone in your control, it’s murder to kill them. Regardless of whether you are an individual or the state.

    2. Sebastian H: Good catch, I misread something in Ross’s article. I have changed the post accordingly.

    3. It’s not quite so simple, I’m afraid. When a poll offers alternatives to the death penalty, support for the death penalty tends to erode. Binary polls about policy preferences seem to often carry a lot of unstated assumptions with them and individuals often seem to pick the answer that is (in their minds) closest to their preferred choice if alternatives are not explicitly listed. The problem is that what an individual thinks is the “closest” choice in such a situation does not necessarily match how the aggregate result is being interpreted.

      You are of course correct if you mean to say that only a minority of Americans oppose the death penalty categorically (as opposed to those who may prefer an alternative, but still do not seem to have a principal objection to capital punishment).

      1. Hmmmm, I’d lay odds that the preferred punishment polls are highly fact specific: I.e. they’d prefer life imprisonment for run of the mill murders, but for especially nasty ones or for serial killers or for torture killers or for mass murderers they like having the death penalty available. Amnesty international seems to be trying to spin that as not being ‘real’ support for the death penalty which seems misleading.

        I also seem to recall that AI thinks life sentences without parole are inhumane, but my googling on the topic gets swamped by their campaign a few years ago on juveniles getting life without parole so I’m not sure. I’m certain that other human rights organizations have taken that position, which would tend to reinforce the “keep the death penalty legal” POV.

        According to the polling I see, I’m in the distinct minority of people who think that the death penalty is morally OK, but that the justice system sucks too much to be trusted with it. I could be wrong on both counts.

        1. I would interpret the two types of polls to mean that in many cases Americans would prefer LWOP to the death penalty, but also that many of these same people want the death penalty preserved as an option, which is not logically inconsistent.

  6. >The fact that most Americans oppose the death penalty therefore doesn’t matter much.

    I was surprised to read that, so I did a little investigation of my own.

    USA Today/Gallup Poll. Dec. 19-22, 2012. N=1,038 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 4.

    “Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?”

    Favor 63% Oppose 32% Unsure 6%

    I’m not sure how you derive the “fact” that “most Americans oppose the death penalty.”

      1. Thanks rachelrachel, see my response to Sebastian H above, you are on the money also.

        1. I didn’t look at the cited polls, but I think careful polling usually finds that support for the death penalty declines significantly when the question proposes life in prison without parole as an alternative punishment. And even Texas now offers that alternative. This helps to explain, I think, why even here the number of death sentences (and executions) is declining.

  7. Californians, oddly, just rejected a reasonably well-organized and -financed initiative campaign to repeal the death penalty — one whose sponsors included some of the very people who’d pushed for the restoration of capital punishment back in the late ’70s.

    So even in one of the more liberal parts of America, popular support for the death penalty endures. (Yeah, we also elect politicians who have no desire to make the system work, so in effect it’s an expensively bureaucratic form of life-without-parole, but that’s another story.)

  8. I am mystified by the argument not spoken in all the brouhaha about the death penalty. It is economically absurd.

    What do we, the living, gain by it and what does it cost us? The answer is trivially simple. It costs a FORTUNE, and it gains us no significant measure of security against future crime.

    Forget right or wrong. It’s just STUPID.

    1. The problem with that argument is that imposing the death penalty could be made cheaper, thereby increasing the likelihood of executing innocent people. In June, Florida enacted the Timely Injustice Act to speed up imposition of the death penalty. (Sorry, I meant “Timely Justice Act.”) To me, the strongest argument against the death penalty is the certainty that innocent people have been and will be executed, with no benefit to counterbalance that fact (if any benefit could counterbalance it).

      Along the same line, Sebastian H comments above that he thinks “that the death penalty is morally OK, but that the justice system sucks too much to be trusted with it.” I hope he recognizes that no justice system run by human beings could ever be trusted with it.

      1. Bullseye Henry! I have heard this argument “I am against it because it isn’t cost-effective”, which means it would be just fine if we could make it more financially efficient. I don’t care if it makes money or saves money, I am against it.

    2. The NY Times has an article about the trial of Nidal Malik Hasan, who acknowledges being the gunman who killed 13 people and wounded 30 others at Fort Hood. He has offered to plead guilty to avoid the death penalty, but the government refuses. Instead:

      “The Army has spent more than $5 million on the case, surrounding the outside of the courthouse with giant sand-packed barriers that protect against explosions and transporting Major Hasan for hearings by helicopter from the nearby Bell County Jail, where he is being held at Army expense.

      “The Army has also paid for his military defense lawyers, paralegals and experts as well as the monthly rental costs for a trailer next to the courthouse that one lawyer called ‘the Hasan hut,’ where he works on his case under tight security.”

      On top of all this, Hasan is representing himself, so the trial is bound to be a circus. And, on top of that, “Legal experts said it would be 10 or 15 years before Major Hasan’s appeals were exhausted,” and a retired Army defense lawyer said, “You can really make a pretty strong case for the fact that the military really does not have a death penalty system. What we have instead is a death row system, where we will go through the court-martial process and all the phases of appeal, and these individuals will languish forever on death row.” Hasan’s former defense lawyer said, “I honestly don’t believe that Nidal Hasan will ever be executed.”

      But we have to cut food stamps.

    3. The economic arguments have to be secondary arguments, for the reasons Henry and Keith note.

      The moral argument is that humans are fallible, and we then have to ask what the acceptable probability of executing an innocent is. If you (as I do) take the answer to be 0, then we cannot have the death penalty. The probability is necessarily nonzero for several reasons. Our prosecutors seem to be more concerned about racking up convictions than seeing that justice is done. This leads them to believe experts who peddle pseudoscience or fake data. It leads them to use perjured testimony from jailhouse snitches. Our jury selection process weeds out people like me who are opposed to capital punishment on principle: prosecutors are allowed to seek “death-qualified” juries. Studies have shown that death-qualified juries are more likely to convict defendants on the basis of similar evidence.

      This is not to say that I don’t believe there are no crimes that merit death. I believe there are: serial killers, child murderers and the like merit death. But we have proven over and over that we cannot be trusted with that power. If we assume that power, we will misuse it. And so, let’s have life without the possibility of parole. If new evidence is uncovered, we can release and compensate (a poor substitute for time, but better than nothing).

      And so the economic argument then becomes a benefit of eliminating capital punishment rather than a primary reason.

      One other thing: doing away with capital punishment is not necessarily permanent. Its supporters will make every effort to bring it back. We have seen this at work in New Mexico: we did away with capital punishment under Gov Richardson. Gov Martinez, a former DA, has brought restoration bills to each session of the Legislature. So far, it hasn’t made it to the floor of either House. That won’t stop her trying, I’m sure.

  9. To coin (or more likely reinvent) a phrase, the problem of capital punishment in the USA is that it’s not a problem.

    1. Well, the death penalty is definitely a problem for those who are innocent on death row. Can you tell who they are. I can’t, but I know they’re there.

      Leaving aside questions of innocence, I’m not too surprised that the arguments Americans find strongest against the death penalty are that it costs too much. I guess the moral depravity of a state that kills pales in significance to anything that might slow down getting that next tax cut?

      Frankly, I am rather amazed that we let a few states continue to violate fundamental principles of human rights. What if a few states, even just one, decided they weren’t going to play by capitalist rules anymore? Maybe take away corporate personhood? The howls would start immediately and conservatives would demand a special session of Congress to deal with it — right after the Marines invade and subdue such arrogance about the rights of money.

      Were it that we really valued life, after birth that is, I’d suppose we’d worry more about the national embarrassment of the death penalty. Were it that we really believe in the principles in our Constitution as applying universally to our citizenery, we’d halt this barbarism. So long as it’s only a few of “those people” in a few states, which should be laughingstocks for a number of other reasons, it’s OK and not too big a deal, I guess?…

  10. A lot of the problem with death penalty occurs further down the menu; in death states, there’s Major League and the minor leagues, and death is major, and the functionaries in the system are propelled by careerism (already a huge problem with prosecutors) to prove their bona fides to go up to the majors. So the whole system is skewed by the availability of an insanely expensive deterrent that doesn’t deter and that generates greater and greater rewards for the careerists the more distorted it makes the system. Non-death sentences get longer and longer, as all penalties short of Major League are deemed wimpy, so everyone on the giving side of penalties pushes the ratchet in one and only one direction.

    The real reason that pro death folks are so often “pro life” on abortion (and to hell with the little bastards once born) is an underlying fascism, the gut level idea that it’s the state that gets to decide who lives and who dies, not you, mister meth dealer and especially not you little missy unplanned pregnancy. That’s why these people also oppose aid in dying measures for the terminally ill.

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