The failure of HB 147 this past legislative sessions marks the third time in the past decade the Utah Legislature has failed to repeal the death penalty despite seven people’s lives being on the line. Capital punishment has been shown to be an ineffective deterrent to crime, while being inhumane to both the victim and person on death row. And as several of Utah’s death penalty cases are once again under scrutiny as new evidence resurfaces decades after sentencing, it’s time to abolish the death penalty to prevent the irreversible loss of those wrongly convicted and the prolonging of victims’ suffering.
Despite the claim that executions deter murder, there is no evidence that this actually occurs. Rigorous studies into this claim are either inconclusive or find no deterring effect when compared to alternate, reversible punishments such as life without parole.1 As a bargaining tool, the overwhelming threat of execution pushes innocent people to plead to crimes they didn’t commit. States without the death penalty have not seen a decrease in cooperation in cases because that threat was taken away. Policy should reflect facts rather than our feelings and gut assumptions. By using the death penalty as a crime prevention measure, Utah fails to keep up with the twenty-three states that recognized its futility and outlawed it.
The death penalty has an atrocious track record when it comes to its cost versus results. To pursue a death penalty sentence rather than life without parole costs an extra $200,000.2 Between 1997 and 2016, this has cost the state of Utah $40 million dollars and will only continue to grow. And the cost is not over after trial. On average, death penalty inmates cost $1.6 million more than inmates sentenced to life without parole from trial to execution because of the time and resources dedicated to proving someone is worthy of the death penalty— and for good reason.3 Unlike any other punishment, the death penalty is irreversible. If someone is innocent or there are problems with their case that might require a re-evaluation of their sentence or trial— as is the case for two death row inmates in Utah— there cannot be restitution after the fact. Over 180 people have been exonerated from death row since 1973.4 If we allow the state to have power over life and death, we are also required to accept that there will be mistakes and innocent people will die for crimes they did not commit. With key institutions failing to secure funding, administering the death penalty is hardly something we should continue to spend resources on, especially when it comes at the cost of innocent life.
Victims of crime do not experience a universal sense of justice or closure with a death penalty sentence. The death penalty is not immediate closure; it is a long, drawn out process that too many victims feels re-traumatizing as they are forced to watch courts battle again and again. Many death row inmates die on death row of natural causes after decades of fighting in the courts. Because victims often have little say in which sentence is sought, it cannot be assumed that they will find closure or justice in administering a death penalty sentence when it can just as easily become a form of torture. Justice and compassion can go hand in hand in granting a sense of finality to victims with alternative forms of sentencing such as life without parole, instead of prolonging victim suffering in the hopes that one day justice may be granted with no guarantee.
Keeping the death penalty in Utah is not only threatening the lives of seven people, It threatens the countless lives of all those who may come after them and be sentenced to the death penalty and the lives of victims and their families trying to heal. As long as we have the death penalty in place, we condone an outdated system of punishment that grants the state unlimited power over life and death. The time to act is not kicking the can down the line as the Legislature continues to do. It is now.
1. Pepper, J. V. (2012). Deterrence and the Death Penalty. (D. S. Nagin, Ed.). National Research Council of the National Academies.
2. Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. (2017). Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice Subgroup Report: Death Penalty Working Group. https://justice.utah.gov/wp-content/uploads/CCJJ-Death-Penalty-Working-Group-Report.tif.pdf
3. Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. (2017). Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice Subgroup Report: Death Penalty Working Group. https://justice.utah.gov/wp-content/uploads/CCJJ-Death-Penalty-Working-Group-Report.tif.pdf
4. DPIC Special Report: The Innocence Epidemic. Death Penalty Information Center. (2021, February 18). Retrieved from https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/facts-and-research/dpic-reports/dpic-special-reports/dpic-special-report-the-innocence-epidemic