Time to Kill the Death Penalty

In February 2015, the governor of Pennsylvania issued a moratorium on executions. In May, Nebraska became the 19th state, and the seventh state since 2007, to abolish the death penalty. And weeks ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, saying “…this state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose.”

Nevertheless, states have executed 19 prisoners so far this year—15 of them killed by the states of Texas and Missouri alone. Texas, Missouri and Florida accounted for 28 of the 35 people executed in 2014. In contrast, 23 states and the federal government have not executed anyone for at least the past 10 years.

This is a tragic little corner of America’s “culture wars,” where mostly Southerners insist that their moral beliefs require them to execute thy neighbor. Little do they understand that they’re on the wrong side of history.

There’s been quite a turnaround from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when progressives were afraid to speak out against the death penalty. At that time polls indicated that about 80 percent of Americans favored capital punishment while only 16 percent opposed it. The polls don’t look so bad today, but at least on the surface Americans still favor the death penalty by a margin of two to one.

And yet, progressives should now feel comfortable on this issue, especially in a primary election. Most Democrats do not favor capital punishment and support by independents is around 60 percent and falling fast. It is intransigence by the Republican base that keeps public opinion looking worse than it is.

There are two arguments that move Americans to our side: (1) it doesn’t work, and (2) it’s killing innocent people.

According to the Gallup Poll, Americans have had a strong change of heart when asked “Do you feel that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to the commitment of murder, that it lowers the murder rate, or not?”

Year YES, does NO, does not
2011 32 64
2006 34 64
2004 35 62
1991 51 41
1986 61 32
1985 62 31

Americans now agree with 88 percent of the country’s top criminologists who, as noted in a study in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, do not believe that the death penalty is a deterrent.

The same Gallup Poll asks “How often do you think that a person has been executed under the death penalty who was, in fact, innocent of the crime he or she was charged with – do you think this has happened in the past five years, or not?” Over the past ten years, about 60 percent have said that yes, an innocent person has been executed within the past five years while about 30 percent say that has not happened.

Again, most Americans have their facts straight. At last count, since 1973, 155 prisoners on death row have been exonerated. Although it is impossible to know how many innocent people have been executed, the Death Penalty Information Center offers a list of ten whose innocence seems probable.

Some of us painfully remember the years following the “Willie Horton” attack on presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, when fairly progressive political consultants would insist that their progressive clients could not oppose the death penalty. It would guarantee their defeat, consultants said. Many progressives agonizingly followed that advice.

Those days are over. We can follow our consciences while simultaneously arguing from a strong political position: that we should instead spend society’s time and money on policies that actually reduce crime and make law-abiding Americans safer.

Bernie Horn is Senior Advisor for the Public Leadership Institute.

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