Killing our Way to Prevention
Dylan Roof, the killer of nine innocent people, received the death sentence after trial. If his case remains consistent with the national average, barring his conviction being overturned or his dying under other circumstances, he will be executed in the year 2032.
The average time an inmate sits on death row while appeals run their course is 15 years 5 months. As of July, 2016 there were 2,095 inmates on death row. The number of inmates on death row, charted over time, is telling. It begs an explanation for the dramatic increase.
In 1953, there were 151 inmates on death row, we executed 62 (47.2%.) Over the next few years the numbers of inmates began to increase, yet the percentage of executions decreased. The Supreme Court decision in death penalty cases effectively stopped executions from 1968 until 1976 (0 executions.)
1977 (1 execution)
Since then, there’s been a steady increase. Our best year was 1999 with 98 executions. As a percentage of inmates on death row, the ratio of executions remains steady at 1.3 to 1.5%. During this period, the time on death row between sentencing and execution rose.
The question some might ask is, how can we speed up the process?”
I would ask what do we get for this 15 years and 5-month investment in maintaining the life of a convicted murderer?
The answer is not as simple as most would think.
Ignoring, for the moment, Benjamin Disraeli’s admonition “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” let’s think about this for a moment.
The United States leads the world in rates of incarceration. We are in good company in executions. Worldwide, the leader board for executions looks like this.
But enough with the numbers, let’s consider the reason. More to the point the lack of reason. Here’s some questions to ask yourself.
- Why do we lead industrialized nations in most forms of criminal violence, in particular gun violence?
- Is the fact that the death penalty is a 100% effective deterrent against those who are executed yet has little measurable deterrent effect against crime rates enough to warrant its application?
- What of the numbers of convictions that have been reversed or vacated based on Prosecutorial or Law Enforcement misconduct?
- If nothing is one hundred percent correct, are we willing to accept the likelihood that we have, or will, execute an innocent person?”
- At what of the politics of the matter? Attorneys General, Sheriffs, and other elected officials face criticisms when they fail to solve heinous crimes. What of the potential for the politics of the matter to overwhelm the search for truth?
The matter is not a simple one. The pain of victims, the ruin of families, the debilitating effect of crime, the very nature of humans to seek to punish those that would harm others. These elements weigh on the matter and deserve consideration.
There are some people in the world we cannot fix. Dylan Roof is just one more example of damaged goods. But I wonder if we do more damage to ourselves by killing him than we realize.
History is replete with examples of efforts to solve problems by killing our way to the solution. I wonder if, millennia from now, scholars will look at our time of embracing the death penalty as our well-intentioned, yet equally evil, version of a final solution.