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For 19 years, I directed the masters in public policy program at University of Northern Iowa. Our goal was to give students the skills to analyze complex public policy issues. However, there are some issues that don’t require advanced analytical skills to evaluate — just a good dose of common sense. One of these is the death penalty.

First, decades of research has shown the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to murder. People who commit murder usually do so in the (often mistaken) belief they won’t get caught. Therefore, the difference between life behind bars and the death penalty does not enter into their thinking about whether or not to commit the crime. Thus, it is not surprising U.S. Department of Justice data show states with the death penalty actually have higher murder rates than states without it, and there was no spike in murders in states that recently abolished it.

Second, while most people who get the sentence are probably guilty, the rate of error is unacceptably high, as indicated by over 160 exonerations in the last 20 years or so. Low income people, particularly those of color, are often railroaded through the system without adequate legal representation. The death penalty allows the criminal justice system to bury its mistakes. To those who think such biases couldn’t occur in Iowa, I invite them to look at the strong racial and class biases that already exist in our system.

Third, the death penalty is incredibly expensive. Estimates by the American Bar Association show states save millions of dollars in legal and incarceration costs by not having the death penalty in place. Part of the high cost is due to the lengthy appeals process for those on death row, but given the high error rate with such appeals in place, one can only imagine what it might be without them.

Finally, since the death penalty is not a deterrent, the only argument left in its favor is retribution. Do those conservatives who believe in limited government really want to give government the power of life and death, not for the purpose of enhancing public safety but simply for revenge? To those who say, “but what about the victims?” I would point out victims’ families have been leaders of anti-death penalty movements in many states.

In sum, if the death penalty is ineffective, expensive and inherently unfair in its application, then why are we even considering it for Iowa?

Al Hays is UNI emeritus professor of political science and public policy and co-chair of the Iowa Justice Action Network. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect those of the University of Northern Iowa.


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