As a retired captain of the Lincoln Police Department with more 25 years of law enforcement experience, I pay close attention to policy discussions concerning public safety.
An issue that will surely emerge in the coming legislative session is whether or not Nebraska should repeal its death penalty. Some might be surprised to learn a veteran police officer supports repealing the death penalty; but my professional experience has shown me that our state’s death penalty doesn’t keep us any safer. Its exorbitant cost actually detracts from programs that would promote the overall health, safety and welfare of our communities.
I’ve spent my adult life working around and thinking about violent criminals. I assure you, the death penalty does not affect a criminal’s thought process. Very few consider the consequences of their actions and believe they will never be caught. I have never met a criminal who expected to be caught, or was deterred by the slight possibility he would be sentenced to death instead of spending the rest of his life in prison.
I am not alone in this thinking. In 1995 and again in 2008, national surveys were conducted among police chiefs. They were asked to rank the effectiveness of crime prevention programs in decreasing violent crime. In both surveys, they ranked the death penalty dead last. A full 99% of the police chiefs said initiatives such as more officers or better lighting in high crime areas would make a more significant contribution than the death penalty in keeping their communities safe.
These rankings and priorities are important. Reality dictates that we can’t have every crime-fighting tool we’d like. We have to make smart, informed choices with our limited resources. The death penalty, while being virtually no deterrent to crime, is tremendously expensive. Nebraska has balked at conducting a cost study of our system, but every state that has researched the numbers has shown the death penalty is far more expensive than life imprisonment without the possibility of release.
The United States Supreme Court has dictated capital cases must be handled differently, so they are especially complicated and time consuming. The vast majority of defendants in capital cases have appointed counsel. That means when seeking the death penalty, the state bears the significant expense of prosecuting and defending the accused.
The millions of dollars we’ve spent on the death penalty would have been much better invested in more police officers, additional resources or training for our current officers. The cheaper, more intelligent alternative for our state is life without the possibility of parole. Repealing the death penalty does not mean we are ‘soft’ on crime. It means we are smart on crime.
Although the death penalty is on the books in Nebraska, we cannot use it. Lethal injection is our only legal method to carry out an execution but one of the required drugs is not available. Concerns about wrongful convictions and the difficulty (or perhaps the impossibility) of finding a legal execution method means we pay a premium to prosecute capital cases, but the few criminals who receive death sentences will not be executed. Our most tenured inmate has been on death row for more than 34 years. We haven’t had an execution in more than 15 years. We’ve already stopped using the death penalty in Nebraska, now we should stop paying for it. Let’s invest in tools our law enforcement officers really need.