Howard Zehr: What's wrong with the death penalty? 

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Howard Zehr is a sociology professor at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., where he also serves as co-director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Zehr spoke at a recent Utah Valley University death-penalty symposium. He’s written a book called Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice and writes a blog at

What’s wrong with the death penalty?
There is no evidence that it deters, and some evidence suggests that it actually causes some people to kill. Also, there is evidence about the cost of it being much higher compared to other sanctions. There is just no evidence that it’s an effective remedy, and it reinforces this “tit-for-tat” idea of justice. The quote of the streets in urban America is, “You do this to me, I’m going to waste you,” and that’s what the death penalty teaches. There’s just so little evidence that it’s an effective policy, and it has moral issues as well.

Why do you think “restorative” justice is better?
When we think about justice, we tend to just think about which laws were broken, who did it and what do they deserve. Restorative justice reframes this and says what really matters are three different questions: who has been hurt, what are their needs and whose obligations is it to fulfill those needs? Instead of justice being focused around what offenders deserve, it revolves around the harm done to victims and the responsibility for that harm.

Could Americans ever embrace the restorative-justice model?
I got my Ph.D. in history, and, especially after looking at a lot of the historical work being done, I’m convinced that we’re a really punitive culture. If you show people evidence that the death penalty doesn’t deter, they still believe in the death penalty—it’s not a rational decision. Looking at prisons, most have around a 70 percent recidivism rate—something’s wrong with that picture.

Doesn’t the death penalty provide closure for the victims’ families?
Victims have all kinds of questions about what happened, fears about the person who did it—they feel the need to tell their story, tell the person who did it what the impact is, and all those things that don’t get met by the legal system. My experience with victims is that their experience with the justice system is often a negative one. And the research shows that victims who go through restorative-justice programs are much less traumatized, have less fear, and they move on in their journeys better than people who go through the traditional court system only.

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