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No Increase in Murder Rate for Civilians or Police Following Abolition of Death Penalty

by Matt Clarke

The transcript of a panel discussion titled “Life After the Death Penalty: Implications for Retentionist States,” presented by the Committees on Capital Punishment of the American Bar Association Section of Civil Rights & Social Justice and the New York City Bar Association, which was posted on the latter’s website on January 26, 2018, revealed that there was no increase in the murder rate for civilians or police officers in states that abolished the death penalty.

A longstanding argument by death penalty proponents is that abolition would lead to a “parade of horribles,” including an increased overall murder rate and increased police officer murder rate. The topic of panelist Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, was statistical information about the effect of death penalty abolition in the modern era as shown by FBI crime statistics since 1987, the first year for which statistics on law enforcement officers feloniously killed in the line of duty are available. The Center does not take a position for or against the death penalty but is critical of how it is administered across the U.S.

Dunham first noted that currently 31 states and the federal government have the death penalty, and 19 states and the District of Columbia do not. Since 2007, seven states that had the death penalty abolished it either legislatively or judicially. No state abolished the death penalty between 1987 and 2006. This means that the states break down into three categories: (1) those retaining the death penalty (death-penalty states), (2) those that abolished it prior to the study period of 1987-2015 (non-death-penalty states), and (3) those that abolished it during the study period (transition states)—Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York.

If the death penalty is an effective deterrent to the murder of civilians or law enforcement officers, we would expect to find an increase in the general murder rate in transition states following abolition, both compared to its pre-abolition rate and the trends in non-death-penalty and death-penalty states. We would also expect to find a similar increase in the law enforcement officer murder rate compared to the pre-abolition rate and the other states’ trends. Finally, we would expect to find an increase in the number of officers murdered as a percentage of all homicides. However, none of that was found.

The murder rate is lowest in the non-death penalty states (4.788 per 100,000 population), it is and about the same in the death penalty states (6.646) and transition states (6.767). The national average is 6.424. The murder rates in the individual transition states did not spike following abolition.

The officer murder rates were highest in death penalty states (0.218 per 1,000,000 population), lower in non-death penalty states (0.159), and lowest in transition states (0.136). The national average was 0.195. According to the data, eight of the nine safest states for officers were transitional or non-death penalty states.

In death penalty and non-death penalty states, officer murders were one-third of one percent of all murders. In transition states, they were one-fifth of one percent of all murders.

“The death penalty appears to make no measurable contribution to police safety,” said Dunham.

Panelist Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA, noted that this was true for murders of correctional officers and civilians as well and that none of the predicted “parade of horribles” occurred in the states that abolished the death penalty. 


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