It’s time to abolish the death penalty in New Hampshire
New Hampshire is currently ranked the third-safest state in the nation. It’s so safe, in fact, that the legislature is considering a proposal that would repeal the use of capital punishment, and instead sentence people convicted of the very worst crimes to life without parole.
Gov. Chris Sununu, however, has threatened to veto the repeal. He shouldn’t.
Given that New Hampshire has reached this safety status without performing an execution in almost 80 years, lawmakers should strongly consider passing the repeal, and Gov. Sununu should reconsider his promise to veto. Doing so would likely increase public safety and minimize future costs to taxpayers.
In the 1976 case of Gregg v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that by specifying aggravating circumstances for which the death penalty could apply, state lawmakers could “minimize the risk of wholly arbitrary and capricious” executions. Since Gregg, several states – including New Hampshire – have expanded their lists of aggravating factors, such as committing murders for hire or committing multiple murders. Narrowing death-penalty-eligible crimes has allowed states to ensure that the most severe punishment applies only to the “worst of the worst.”
After Gregg was decided, New Hampshire adopted a narrow death penalty statute that even today applies in a few, specific circumstances. Under this law, the death penalty can only be sought in cases involving the murder of police and court officers, judges, murders for hire, or murders connected to drug deals, rape, kidnapping and home invasions.
Since New Hampshire passed its post-Gregg death penalty statute, few offenders have faced trial under its provisions; currently, only one man awaits execution. Prior to his sentence, the state has not executed a single prisoner since 1939, when Howard Long became the last person to be executed – by hanging – in the Granite State. The state has since changed its primary method of execution to lethal injection, but has never adopted a protocol.
Nor did it build any type of death chamber. But now, there are tentative plans to build one – at an estimated cost of $1.7 million to the taxpayer. It is critical to note not only the enormous cost of the facility, but that there would be a distinct possibility of the number of capital offenses increasing if there were incentive to use a new and expensive facility to house and to execute prisoners.
Support for abolishing the death penalty in New Hampshire is coalescing among the citizenry. During the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hearing held on April 4, nearly two dozen witnesses gave testimony, with those in favor of the bill outnumbering those opposed by a ratio of seven to one. For nearly 20 years, the New Hampshire Legislature has attempted to pass legislation to repeal the death penalty, with the first repeal bill passing the House and Senate in 2000. That effort was vetoed by then-Governor Jeanne Shaheen. It would be quite a shame if the same result occurred in 2018.
State-to-state comparisons suggest that states without the death penalty are safer than states that allow capital punishment. In 2016, the average murder rate in states where the death penalty is legal was 5.4 (per 100,000 people), while the average murder rate in states without the death penalty was 3.9. Maine and Vermont – the first- and second-safest states in the country, respectively – both abolished the death penalty decades ago. With New Hampshire being the only remaining state in New England to allow capital punishment by law, eliminating the death penalty could likely bolster its public safety to match that of its neighbors.
Reluctance to implement the death penalty is healthy for our criminal justice system. State and local governments, with already minimal resources, spend millions of dollarsprosecuting death penalty cases and maintaining a heightened level of security ondeath rows. As Ray Samuels, the former Police Chief of Newark, California, said, “If the millions of dollars currently spent on thedeath penalty were spent on investigating unsolved homicides, modernizing crime labs and expanding effective violence prevention programs, our communities would be much safer.”
In debating the abolition of the death penalty in New Hampshire, both lawmakers and Gov. Sununu should consider that eliminating capital punishment could increase public safety, and that money that would be used to build a death row facility and execution chamber could be better spent.
Jesse Kelley is a policy analyst and state affairs manager for criminal justice at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit group aimed at promoting limited government in Washington, D.C.