Death Penalty Not Needed to Prevent Prison Murder

Multiple studies that have been completed since capital punishment was reinstated show that prisoners sentenced to life without parole do not pose any more threat to other prisoners or corrections personnel than do inmates in the general population, and in most cases “lifers” perpetrate fewer crimes in prison than those eligible for parole.

Comprehensive research has been performed on inmate misconduct data using various subsets of inmates from Missouri, Texas, Arizona, and Florida, all of which has shown that convicted murderers were not significantly more likely to engage in disciplinary misconduct or commit acts of institutional violence than were inmates serving time for other offenses.

A selection of significant findings from available research:

• Age is the single best predictor of future violence in prison.

• Severity of offense had an inverse relationship to institutional violence in nearly every study.

• Along with the influence of aging, time served, as well as the acculturation of lifers who come to view the prison as their home and seek to make the best of it, the potential rewards or sanctions that are paired with behavior likely contribute to the relatively low incidence of violent institutional misconduct.

• Serious misconduct is more common among inmates with longer criminal records, but especially those arrested initially in their early teenage years. Inmates involved in gang activity are far more likely to get into serious trouble. And younger inmates, especially those under 20, pose more risk.

• High-risk inmates tend to be young individuals with long criminal records, active participants in street and prison gangs, and sentenced to long prison terms.

Death Penalty Retentionist States vs. Abolitionist States (data from Bureau of Justice Statistics):

• Between 2001 and 2007, states with the death penalty had considerably higher prison murder rates on average (4.25/100,000, with four of 38 states reporting no prison homicides in that time period) than those states without the death penalty (.92/100,000, with 7 of 12 states reporting no prison homicides).

• Both populations had lower murder rates on average than the country as a whole, which averaged about 5.6/100,000 during the same period.

Evaluating "Future Dangerousness":

• Juries are strongly influenced by the risk (i.e. "future dangerousness") assertions and predictions of mental health professionals, which are largely unfounded and often just plain wrong.

• Additionally, juries are often meant to rely on common sense and intuition when predicting the possibility of a defendant’s “continuing threat to society,” leading many to assume that violent offenders will become violent prisoners, a belief unsubstantiated by the facts.

• Particularly in states where juries must affirm that a defendant is likely to “commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society” in order to sentence a person to death (Texas and Oregon), knowing the real factors that affect future violent proclivities becomes a matter of life and death.

• Prisons utilize outdated tools like the Burgess scale to classify inmates by their propensity to reoffend despite the existence of new research which could help to better classify inmates.


The death penalty is not needed to prevent prison murder. Death row prisoners can be safely resentenced to life without parole without impacting the security of the prison or increasing the likelihood of prison murder.

Additional Research:

Life and Death in the Lone Star State: Three Decades of Violence Predictions by Capital Juries (2011)
By Mark D. Cunningham, Jon R. Sorensenz, Mark P. Vigenx, and S.O. Woods

Using a sample of former Texas death row inmates sentenced under the “special issue,” a rule allowing the death penalty for those who pose a continuing threat to society. Consistent with other research, the authors found juror expectations of serious prison violence by these offenders had high error rates.

Improbable predictions at capital sentencing: Contrasting prison violence outcomes (2010)
By Mark D. Cunningham, Jon R. Sorensen

By examining the prison disciplinary records of capital defendants who had been the subject of defense-sponsored violence risk assessments or risk-related testimony by Cunningham, the authors attempted to measure the accuracy of defense-sponsored mental health expert violence risk assessments for prison, risk assessment for prison testimony, and risk-related testimony at capital sentencing. They found that violence largely emerges from the intersection of the person in a particular interpersonal interaction in a given context, and that with rare exception, only expert assertions of various degrees of improbability of future serious prison violence by respective capital defendants are reliable or scientifically supportable.

Institutional misconduct and differential parole eligibility among capital inmates (2010)
By Robert G. Morris, Dennis R. Longmire, Jacqueline Buffington-Vollum, and Scott Vollum

In an attempt to measure the efficacy of misconduct predictions, the authors studied disciplinary histories from non-death-sentenced capital inmates in Texas whose offenses occurred between 1987 and 1994. They found that capital inmates sentenced to longer mandatory prison terms are less likely to engage in serious and violent misconduct than those eligible for parole.

Life Without Parole, America’s Other Death Penalty: Notes on Life Under Sentence of Death by Incarceration (2008)
By Robert Johnson & Sandra McGunicall-Smith

In interviews with condemned prisoners, LWOP prisoners, and prison officers, the authors found evidence that inmates sentenced to life without parole do not pose a special risk to public safety, citing lifers’ self-interest in avoiding trouble that might jeopardize the few privileges allowed to them.

Forecasting Dangerous Inmate Misconduct (2005)
By Richard A. Berk, Brian Kriegler, and Jong-Ho Baek

Examining data from the California Department of Corrections, the authors found serious misconduct to be more common among inmates with long criminal records, particularly those initially imprisoned as teenagers. Additionally, gang affiliation and age were found to be predictive of prison misconduct. The study raises concerns about the techniques prisons use to classify inmates upon entering the system.


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