About as many prisoners are killed illegally in U.S. jails and prisons as are executed through judicial sentences. Data are readily available only for the years 2001-4. Across these years, on average 72 prisoners were illegally killed per year, while on average 65 were legally executed per year. A much larger number of prisoners commit suicide and have deaths listed under an “other/unspecified” cause.[*] Total prisoner deaths from non-medical causes (in order of decreasing frequency, deaths from suicide, other/unspecified causes, accidents, and homicides) averaged 877 per year. That’s more than an order of magnitude greater than the frequency of legal executions.
The death penalty and legal executions get a relatively large amount of public attention. The death penalty involves direct, deliberate, legal killing. The action necessary to stop legal executions is obvious and formally feasible. The death penalty supports well-recognized actors, focal stories, and polarized public arguments. The death penalty is thus well-suited to public deliberation.
However, measured by death in the criminal justice system, the considerable effort and resources applied in opposition to the death penalty probably have been a relatively poor investment. Suppressing the death penalty is a very difficult challenge in the U.S. Legal executions have not occurred only for about fifteen years across all of U.S. history. On the other hand, reducing non-medical prisoner deaths by 10% would account for a larger reduction in deaths in the U.S. criminal justice system than would eliminating the death penalty. If the material resources and public attention committed to death-penalty debate were directed to prison guards and administrators, a 10% reduction in non-medical prisoner deaths probably would be quite feasible.
Unfortunately, details of prison conditions and operating protocols aren’t well-suited to public deliberation. Authoritative decisions can’t easily and directly change outcomes. Prison conditions and operating protocols involve the actions of many persons with no public profiles. Most persons aren’t interested in narrow issues of prison administration and can’t be easily motivated to learn about them and discuss them.
General public values of bureaucratic professionalism, reasoned action, and humane concern are probably the most quantitatively imporant democratic controls on death in the criminal justice system.
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[*] “Other/unspecified” causes don’t include death from medical causes, meaning “natural causes” / illness and deaths from AIDS.