The most recent legislative session in Arizona has seen progress on criminal justice reform, but the biggest reform still awaits – elimination of the death penalty.
Am I crazy for even suggesting this? I’m still new to the state, having moved here from Virginia last year. But, if Virginia, the former cradle of the confederacy can end capital punishment – which it did recently – Arizona can do the same.
We’re all probably familiar with the traditional arguments against the death penalty: it is cruel and unusual punishment, the Bible enjoins us against killing, and the process is prohibitively long because of necessary safeguards. Any liberal is familiar with this line of argument against capital punishment.
But there is a strong conservative case to be made against the death penalty. From this perspective, capital punishment does not deter crime, its mistakes are irredeemable, its costs are unwieldy, victims’ families do not often find peace or satisfaction in the executions, and other options are just as effective.
According to the National Research Council, there is no credible evidence that states with the death penalty enjoy lower crime rates as a result of executions. The decision to kill is rarely reasoned, the criminal considering other alternatives if only he knew he faced the death penalty. The reality is that most crimes, even the supposedly premediated, are done on impulse rather than with deliberative thought. Criminals typically aren’t thinking of consequences when in the heat of the moment.
To date, more than 180 death row inmates have been exonerated of their crimes. In a shocking statistic, for every 8.3 people put to death since the mid-1970s, one capital defendant has been exonerated. To some, this might be a sign that the system is working, since the innocent are cleared before execution. However, there are multiple cases in which it’s feared the innocent have been put to death, some as recently as last year. More to the point, do we trust government processes so much that we are willing to risk an innocent person’s execution when the penalty is irreversible?
Every court system that has studied the subject has concluded that the death penalty costs significantly more than its alternatives, at least 40% more and as much as three times as high. Partially, that’s because capital cases have two parts – a guilt phase about the crime itself and a separate trial for the punishment. Jurors have to be separately qualified, and investigations are more intensive and expensive. The money spent on these processes could be better dedicated to crime reduction, victim services, or drug or mental health treatment programs. It’s not surprising, then, that juries across the nation are rejecting the death penalty, concluding that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is an acceptable alternative. In Arizona alone, only one person was sentenced to death in 2020, the same number as 2019. Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a process and penalty that is now so little employed?
Ultimately, the death penalty seems premised on retribution, that old biblical sense that a perpetrator should pay with his own life for ending another’s existence. If there were any group that would seek retribution, surely it would be the victim’s family members. However, psychological research indicates that family members are rarely comforted by the perpetrator’s execution and that survivors find greater long-term satisfaction with a defendant’s life sentence. In a study from the University of Minnesota, just 2.5% of family members achieved closure from the perpetrator’s execution. As a therapist who works with victims’ families explains, “More often than not, families of murder victims do not experience the relief they expected to feel at the execution. Taking a life doesn’t fill that void, but it’s generally not until after the execution that families realize this.”
Against this backdrop, the death penalty is a relic of a bygone era. Putting aside its barbarousness, the long-term trauma it inflicts on the executioners themselves, capital punishment is prohibitively expensive, it fails to make us safer, it is fraught with error, and it does not satisfy the families of the very victims to be avenged. Life without the possibility of parole accomplishes the needed goals of punishment without these frightful costs and risks. If a state with the troubled history of Virginia can reach this conclusion, a state like Arizona can eliminate the death penalty, too.
Jon Gould is foundation professor criminology, justice and law and director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University.