That's the title of John J. Donohue's post at California Progress Report. He's a Stanford Law prof and a research associate for the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Forty years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia struck down the death penalty on the ground that it was applied in an arbitrary manner. Four years later, the Supreme Court accepted the constitutionality of “new and improved” death penalty statutes that were supposed to eliminate the defects condemned in Furman. In bringing back the death penalty in 1976, the Court also cited studies suggesting that executions save lives.
Four decades later, there is plenty of evidence that the death penalty continues to be applied in an unfair manner and not a shred of evidence that the death penalty deters.
This is not to say that death penalty supporters have not repeatedly offered studies claiming to show deterrence. Indeed, such widely-trumpeted but wholly unreliable studies have appeared at critical moments to try to stem the waning support for the death penalty.
But all of these studies have now been properly interred. Recently, the prestigious National Research Council, affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that studies claiming that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on murder rates were “fundamentally flawed” and should not be used when making policy decisions about the death penalty.
Based on its examination of all deterrence studies over the past 35 years, the NRC panel concluded that previous research on the topic is “not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates” and “should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment.” Notably, the panel included conservative scholar James Q. Wilson, the former Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, whose long-time support for the death penalty did not keep him from endorsing this finding.
Now it is up to California voters to decide whether they want to become the sixth state in six years to replace capital punishment with an effective alternative. We have the chance to prevent innocent people from being executed, end the unfairness that pervades the current system, and save millions in tax revenues, all while improving public safety. In the words of Justice Blackmun, it is time for Californians to stop "tinker[ing] with the machinery of death."