Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico signed a bill last Wednesday that will repeal the state’s use of the death penalty.
The new law, which has been in legislative session for more than ten years, will replace capital punishment with life without parole.
Although New Mexico currently has two prisoners on death row, the legislation will only apply to crimes committed after it takes effect on July 1.
New Mexico is the second state to ban executions since the United States reinstated the death penalty in 1976, bringing the total number of states without a death penalty to 15.
According to Amnesty International, of the more than 1,100 prisoners who have been executed in the United States since 1976, only one was executed in New Mexico.
While Richardson’s decision has been praised by a number of human rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, it has also been subject to a substantial amount of criticism.
The Sheriffs’ and Police Association of New Mexico, for instance, argues that capital punishment helped to deter violence, especially against police officers, jailers and prison guards.
However, according to Richard Clark, an associate professor of sociology at John Carroll University, the data on the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent is inconsistent.
“Some folks argue that it has been effective, but it really depends on what data points you pick. One decade it has been effective. Another decade it hasn’t been. When you look at the aggregate data across the board, it’s really hard to tell. So I can’t see how you could really argue that it’s ever going to be a deterrent,” said Clark, an expert on the criminal justice system and the death penalty.
He also pointed out that crime and murder rates did not increase after states repealed their death penalties.
Although Richardson has supported the limited use of capital punishment in the past, he said the discrimination that plagued the system was one of the deciding factors in his decision to abolish it.
As explained by Clark, “Minorities are disproportionately on death row. The data suggests that the No. 1 factor that determines whether criminals receive the death sentence is the race of the person they killed. Killing a white person significantly increases your chances of getting it. Another factor is the jury. Minorities and Catholics, and lots of other groups of folks, have been excluded from juries because they seem too liberal” and, therefore, wouldn’t vote for the death penalty.
Richardson was also concerned with the growing number of exonerations among inmates on death row.
Since 1973, 130 people on death row in 26 states have been exonerated, or pardoned, including four in New Mexico.
Many of those exonerations were made possible through the use of DNA evidence.
However, Clark points out that only about 25 percent of homicides have DNA evidence, indicating that there may be many more on death row who are innocent.
Advocates of abolishing capital punishment also point out the high price tag of executing criminals.
Clark said while expenses vary from state to state, “It costs about $2 million to $2.5 million more to prosecute a death penalty case all the way through than to simply sentence a convict to life without the possibility of parole.”
With many states struggling to balance their budgets during the current economic recession, Clark said “the cost factor is certainly weighing in.”
A number of states, including Colorado, Kansas, Maryland and Montana, are already considering whether to abolish their death penalties.