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Murderers, Plea Bargains, and Dollars

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The folks pushing death penalty repeal bills are making two promises. First, life imprisonment will provide as much protection to the public as the death penalty in terms of incapacitating murderers from killing again.* Second, substituting life imprisonment for the death penalty will save big bucks in trial costs. What they don't mention is the incompatibility of these two promises. To get the same number of never-release sentences as we get now, a lot more murder cases would have to go to trial, and that increase may largely or entirely offset the savings from eliminating capital trials.

In a study we released today in working paper form, we track murder cases in a sample of 33 of the 75 largest counties in the country. The data are from 1988, one of the few compilations of the data items needed for this study. Not surprisingly, guilty pleas in murder cases with sentences of life in prison or terms over 20 years are nearly four times as common in states with the death penalty as in those without it: 19% versus 5%.

What will happen to the cases in that 14% difference if the state repeals the death penalty? Either cases that would otherwise have been pleaded go to trial or murderers that would otherwise have received life or long sentences get shorter ones. The first option costs dollars, and the second costs lives.

The only previous study on the subject that I found was Ilyana Kuziemko (2006), Does the threat of the death penalty affect plea bargaining in murder cases? Evidence from New York's 1995 reinstatement of capital punishment, American Law and Economics Review, 8(1), 116-142. Her answer was that the second option predominated. In states without the death penalty, more murderers get off with lesser sentences.

CJLF's press release is here. The working paper is here.
* Of course, there are the nagging problems of killings within prison and prisoners with connections arranging murders on the outside, but the opponents consider these lives expendable.

4 Comments

Awesome work. America is lucky to have CJLF.

Why have death-penalty abolitionists been gaining so much momentum lately? Poll after poll shows a majority of Americans are in favor of the death penalty, yet their elected representatives seem to be out of step. State legislators in Montana, Maryland and New Mexico all seem on the verge of getting rid of capital punishment.

The abolitionists have tried every trick in the book: the innocent will be executed, lethal injection's cruel, lethal-injection protocols weren't open to public comment, the death penalty's too expensive (to wit, in Colorado, a false choice has been presented between retaining the death penalty and funding a cold-case bureau).

One particularly effective abolitionist is the Death Penalty Information Center. The head of that institute manages to get interviewed for a plethora of death-penalty articles, but due perhaps to the neutral-sounding name of his organization (and all-too-frequent journalistic laziness), the articles rarely point out that the DPIC is firmly against capital punishment. He also manages to get away with the assertion that there have been over 100 death-row "exonerations". Serious publications nearly always just take him at his word on this.

What can be done?

12:30 commenter,*

You've noted several important issues. The anti side has a well-funded PR organization, masquerading as neutral. The call themselves "nonpartisan," playing on the dual meaning of that word. In the sense of unaffiliated with a political party it is true. In the sense of neutral on the issue, it is patently false. Fortunately, the AP wised up to them a while back and usually identifies them as anti-DP.

Still, they get away with a lot of misrepresentation, particularly of the misleading half-truth variety. They call their list the "innocence list," even though if you go to the web site and read the criteria to be on it, innocence isn't there. Yet in every debate on the death penalty I have been in (and I have been in a lot), someone cites the list as people who actually did not commit the murders.

There is no similar organization on the other side. Death penalty is not the only, or even the primary, mission of CJLF. PR work is not the purpose for which we are structured. Our main job is briefing cases. We participate in the debate to fill a void, but there is no way we can pump out the volume to match an organization that does nothing else.

* By the way, it would help if you adopted a screen name. It doesn't have to reveal your identity.

Sorry, but I haven't been able to figure out how to adopt a screen name with OpenID.

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