Published on Fridya, September 22, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
States Without Death Penalty Have Lower Homicide Rates
by Raymond Bonner, Ford Fessenden, New York Times
The dozen states that have chosen not to enact the death penalty
since the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that it was constitutionally
permissible have not had higher homicide rates than states with the death
penalty, statistics and analysis show.
Indeed, 10 of the 12 states without capital punishment have homicide rates below the national average, FBI data shows, while half the states with the death penalty have homicide rates above the national average. A state-by-state analysis found that during the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty has been 48 percent to 101 percent higher than in states without the death penalty.
The Times study also found that homicide rates have risen and fallen along roughly symmetrical paths in the states with and without the death penalty, suggesting to many experts that the threat of the death penalty rarely deters criminals.
``It is difficult to make the case for any deterrent effect from these numbers,'' said Steven Messner, a criminologist at the State University of New York at Albany, who reviewed the analysis. ``Whatever the factors are that affect change in homicide rates, they don't seem to operate differently based on the presence or absence of the death penalty in a state.''
That is one of the arguments most frequently made against capital punishment in states without the death penalty -- that and the assertion that it is difficult to mete out fairly. Opponents also maintain that it is too expensive to prosecute and that life without parole is a more efficient form of punishment.
Prosecutors and officials in states that have the death penalty are as passionate as in states that don't. While they recognize that it is difficult to make the case for deterrence, they contend that there are powerful reasons to carry out executions. Rehabilitation is ineffective, they argue, and capital punishment is often the only penalty that matches the heinousness of the crimes committed. Furthermore, they say, society has a right to retribution, and the finality of an execution can bring closure to victims' families.
Polls indicate that these are the views held by most people. And certainly, most states have death penalty statutes. Twelve states have chosen otherwise, but their experiences have been largely overlooked in recent discussions about capital punishment.
``I think Michigan made a wise decision 150 years ago,'' said the state's Republican governor, John Engler. Michigan abolished the death penalty in 1846 and has resisted attempts to reinstate it. ``We're pretty proud of the fact that we don't have the death penalty,'' Engler said, adding that he is opposed to the death penalty on moral and pragmatic grounds.
Engler said he is not swayed by polls that show 60 percent of Michigan residents favor the death penalty. He said 100 percent would like not to pay taxes.
In addition to Michigan, and its Midwestern neighbors Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin, the states without the death penalty are Alaska, Hawaii, West Virginia, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts, where an effort to reinstate it was narrowly defeated last year.
The homicide rate in North Dakota, which does not have the death penalty, was lower than the homicide rate in South Dakota, which does have it, according to FBI statistics for 1998. Massachusetts, which abolished capital punishment in 1984, has a lower rate than Connecticut, which has six people on death row; the homicide rate in West Virginia is 30 percent below that of Virginia, which has one of the highest execution rates in the country.
Other factors affect homicide rates, of course, including unemployment and demographics, as well as the amount of money spent on police, prosecutors and prisons.
But the analysis found that the demographic profile of states with the death penalty is not far different from that of states without it. The poverty rate in states with the death penalty, as a whole, was 13.4 percent in 1990, compared with 11.4 percent in states without the death penalty.
Of the current death row population across the country, 43 percent are African Americans, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.
BC: THE DEATH PENALTY AND HOMICIDE RATES Homicide rates in states with the death penalty are higher than in those without, and have shown similar up-and-down trends over the years, offering little support to the contention that capital punishment is a deterrent. . Death row inmates as of July 2000 . ORE. 28 ALA. 184 ALASKA No Death Penalty ARIZ. 120 ARK. 41 CALIF. 576 COLO. 6 CONN. 6 DEL. 18 FLA. 391 GA. 135 HAWAII No Death Penalty IDAHO 21 ILL. 168 IND. 43 IOWA No Death Penalty KAN. 4 KY. 41 LA. 91 ME. No Death Penalty MD. 18 MASS. No Death Penalty MICH. No Death Penalty MINN No Death Penalty. MISS. 63 MO. 80 MONT. 6 NEB. 10 NEV. 91 NH 0 N.J. 17 NM 5 NY 5 NC 232 ND No Death Penalty OHIO 200 OKLA. 148 PA. 235 R.I. No Death Penalty SC 70 SD 3 TENN. 101 TEX. 455 UTAH 11 VA. 29 VT. No Death Penalty WASH. 16 W. VA. No Death Penalty WIS. No Death Penalty WYO. 2 . -- HOMICIDE RATES States with the death penalty(x) . -- Highest Louisiana 12.8 Mississippi 11.4 New Mexico 10.9 Maryland 10.0 Nevada 9.7 -- Lowest Massachusetts(x) 2.0 Iowa(x) 1.9 New Hampshire 1.5 South Dakota 1.4 North Dakota 1.1 . Sources: Analysis by The New York Times (homicide rates); NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (death row population); National Center for Health Statistics and Census Bureau (state homicide rates)©2000 San Francisco Chronicle