In the race to see which states public officials display the greatest sense of misplaced priorities, New Jersey seems like a hands-down winner for 2007. The state legislature is in the process of repealing Jerseys death penalty amid great debate and fanfare. Claiming that capital punishment is barbaric and ineffective, Jersey would be the first state in the country to abolish executions legislatively since states were forced by a 1976 Supreme Court ruling to rewrite their death-penalty laws.
A few key facts are missing from the debate. Above all, while politicians rush to eliminate the death penalty, theyve paid little attention to the murder ratewhich since 2000 has jumped 44 percent in Jersey, up from 3.4 murders per 100,000 people to 4.9, while declining modestly across the nation. Jerseys increase in murders has been the sixth-highest in the country. Meanwhile, the state has earned a reputation for having some of the meanest streets in America. Three of its citiesNewark, Camden, and Trentonare among the countrys most dangerous. Of the 183 cities with populations of between 100,000 and 499,000, Newark is the seventh most dangerous; of the 110 cities with populations between 75,000 and 99,999, Camden is the most dangerous and Trenton the seventh most dangerous.
Though several recent studies have shown that executions seem to have a deterrent effect on murders, death-penalty foes argue that most murders are spontaneous acts of passion committed by people who know their victimsthe kind of crimes that the threat of execution doesnt deter. Yet these crimes clearly arent Jerseys problem. The spike in the states murder rate has been attributed to rising gang violence, centered on the drug trade and turf battles. In many cases, the states murderers are acting with malice aforethought against anyone who gets in their waynot just other thugs but ordinary citizens, too. Earlier this year, for instance, the press reported that threats against witnesses lives had prompted the prosecutor for one of the states biggest counties, Essex, to stop trying murder cases in which there was only one eyewitness. One of the most horrific murder cases in recent memory, a quadruple slaying in Newark in 2004, was attributed to efforts to silence witnesses in a murder case; later, a witness to that quadruple murder was killed.
Whats happening in some of Jerseys toughest communities is a virtual breakdown of order: thugs, not cops, rule the streets, openly defying the criminal-justice system. Yet none of this has elicited nearly as much outrage as the death penalty seems to have sparked among Jerseys legislators, who have no other major criminal-justice initiativesnothing to help stem the violence in communitiesin the legislative hopper.
The rise in crime is only the latest in a series of setbacks for Jersey, which was once among the safest and most prosperous states, a place of stable communities that was hospitable to families and businessesand hence a magnet for both. But Jerseys politicians have managed to squander much of that reputation through high taxes, toxic business regulations, and inattention to crime.
The result has been a sharp reversal of fortunes. Jerseys rate of citizen outmigration to other places is now among the highest in the country. Its cities, in particular, have cumulatively lost hundreds of thousands of residents, and most of those fleeing no longer seem to be stopping at the states borders. Earlier this year, the U.S. Census reported that Jersey was no longer one of the ten most populous states. The states economy, which once easily outperformed the national economy, is now a perpetual laggard, as opportunity declines and job growth happens elsewhere.
None of these facts has bestirred Jerseys legislature to action. Still, its important that the rest of America realize that the state that becomes the first to abolish the death penalty legislatively is a place of rising crime, where thugs rule some neighborhoods and the criminal-justice system is unraveling. If only New Jerseys misguided politicians could be as passionate about those issues as they are about repealing capital punishment.
Steven Malanga is senior editor of City Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is a coauthor of The Immigration Solution.