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The death penalty and the facts

Jack Lessenberry

State Senator Virgil Smith, a Detroit Democrat, wants Michigan to enact the death penalty for anyone who kills a police officer in the line of duty.

To quote the senator:

“If you kill a cop … if you’re willing to go that far, ain’t no telling what you’re willing to do.”

He doesn’t think such a person deserves to live. He’s not alone in this: Two powerful Republican allies, Senate Majority leader Arlan Meekhof and Majority Floor Leader Mike Kowall are cosponsoring his resolution.

But it’s already clear this isn’t going anywhere. The Roman Catholic Church, which is otherwise stoutly conservative on social issues, is strongly against the death penalty.

Rick Jones, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is opposed to it, and he is nobody’s kale salad-eating liberal. He is a tough conservative, a career law enforcement officer, and a former sheriff. Senator Jones said he was opposed to capital punishment because, after all, mistakes are made.

But law enforcement officers and criminologists, also know two things about the death penalty. First, states that have the death penalty have significantly higher murder rates than those that don’t have it. Second, there’s no evidence that the death penalty deters crime. Nobody who kills somebody in a fit of passion sits down first with a legal pad and evaluates pros and cons.

Studies show that most other murders are committed either under the influence of drugs and alcohol, or by those who are mentally ill. Having the death penalty for cop killers could in fact lead to more murdered cops. Police are all too familiar with the concept of “suicide by cop,” in which someone attempts to provoke a policeman into killing them in a bizarre form of suicide.

Specifying the death penalty only for those who kill police could, in other words, have unintended and tragic consequences. Actually, if someone was rational about all this, they might well be more inclined to kill if they thought they would be put to sleep rather than spend life in prison, without hope of parole.

If you wonder why, watch the movie The Shawshank Redemption for a mild taste of what life behind bars is like.

There’s one final reason the death penalty is a bad idea, one you might not suspect: Inflicting it is terribly expensive. The cost isn’t in the execution itself. It is in the extra legal work and appeals surrounding any death penalty case.

An Urban Institute study found that in Maryland, where the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, the extra cost to the taxpayers was $186 million in the first thirty years.

That’s for five executions. In Washington State, each case where prosecutors have sought the death penalty has cost the state more than one million extra dollars.

Other states have similar stories.

James Abbott, a respected New Jersey police chief, said recently that we should forget about the death penalty, and instead give law enforcement officers the money we’ve been wasting on it to fight crime. He knows what he’s talking about.

It may feel good to think about killing those we are most mad at. But like many fantasies, it doesn’t make much sense.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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