The process for administering the death penalty in the United States is broken beyond repair, and it is time to choose a more effective and moral alternative. California voters will have the opportunity to do this on election day.
Although our government has a fundamental responsibility to protect its citizens, there is little evidence that the death penalty acts as a strong deterrent to murder and other violent crimes. One recent study found that 88% of the nation’s leading criminologists believe that swift and certain punishment is the best deterrent. The death penalty is neither swift nor certain, with the appeals process in California lasting an average of 25 years. Most inmates who are sentenced to death instead die of old age.
Some studies have suggested that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime, but many others have found no such effect. A 1995 survey of 400 police chiefs, for example, ranked the death penalty last among ways to reduce violent crime. Higher priorities included curbing drug abuse, more police officers on the streets, lowering the technical barriers to prosecution, longer sentences and a better economy with more jobs. In fact, California’s homicide rate has declined by 23% since executions were put on hold in 2006.
In general, states without the death penalty have lower murder rates than states that have it, a gap that has consistently grown since the 1990s. Southern states carry out more than 80% of the executions but have a higher murder rate than any other region. Texas has by far the most executions, and its homicide rate is twice that of Wisconsin, the first state to abolish the death penalty. Look at similar adjacent states: There are more capital crimes per capita in South Dakota, Connecticut and Virginia (with death sentences) than neighboring North Dakota, Massachusetts and West Virginia (without death penalties).
Moreover, the homicide rate is five times greater in the United States than in any Western European country, none of which employs the death penalty. The United States is practically alone among Western nations in its use of the death penalty. Some 90% of the world’s executions are carried out by four nations: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Does the U.S. really want to be in the company of countries with such poor human rights records?
To date, 141 innocent people have been exonerated after being wrongly sentenced to death, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In 2011 alone, three men in California were exonerated after decades in prison. And while it is impossible to know how many innocent people have been executed, it was just a year ago that the world watched my home state of Georgia execute Troy Anthony Davis despite serious doubts surrounding his guilt. America is better than this.
A group that includes former wardens, prosecutors and judges has placed Proposition 34 on the ballot in California, which would replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole. As governor of Georgia, I proposed the same alternative to the death penalty in 1972, but our state legislators were unwilling to support it.
Proposition 34 goes further by requiring convicted killers to work and pay restitution to a victim’s compensation fund. Since 1973, California’s current system has cost the state’s taxpayers $4 billion and has resulted in 13 executions, which works out to about $307 million per execution. The legislative analyst estimated that Proposition 34 would save California taxpayers an estimated $100 million annually at first, rising eventually to about $130 million in savings. That money would be directed into more DNA testing, crime labs and other tools to help police officers solve rapes and murders, almost half of which go unsolved in the United States.
Some devout Christians, particularly Protestants, are fervent advocates of the death penalty. This view contradicts the teachings of Jesus Christ and misinterprets Holy Scripture, with its numerous examples of mercy. We should remember how God forgave Cain, who killed Abel. He also forgave the adulterer King David, who had Bathsheba’s husband killed. Jesus forgave an adulterous woman sentenced to be stoned to death and explained away the “eye for an eye” scripture. The Catholic Church has officially condemned the death penalty, as have the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, Reform Judaism and many other religious denominations .
Perhaps the strongest argument against the death penalty, though, is its extreme bias against the poor, minorities and those with diminished mental capacity. Although homicide victims are six times more likely to be black rather than white, 77% of death penalty cases involve white victims. It is hard to imagine a rich white person going to the death chamber after being defended by expensive lawyers. We shouldn’t allow a system to continue that places a higher value on the lives of white Americans.
Californians have the opportunity to replace this wasteful, immoral and discriminatory system with a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole. I urge them to vote yes on Proposition 34.
Former President Jimmy Carter is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of the nonprofit Carter Center, which advances peace and health worldwide.