In the race to see which state’s 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 Jersey’s 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, they’ve paid little attention to the murder rate—which 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. Jersey’s 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 cities—Newark, Camden, and Trenton—are among the country’s 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 victims—the kind of crimes that the threat of execution doesn’t deter. Yet these crimes clearly aren’t Jersey’s problem. The spike in the state’s murder rate has been attributed to rising gang violence, centered on the drug trade and turf battles. In many cases, the state’s murderers are acting with malice aforethought against anyone who gets in their way—not 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 state’s 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.
What’s happening in some of Jersey’s 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 Jersey’s legislators, who have no other major criminal-justice initiatives—nothing to help stem the violence in communities—in 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 businesses—and hence a magnet for both. But Jersey’s 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. Jersey’s 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 state’s borders. Earlier this year, the U.S. Census reported that Jersey was no longer one of the ten most populous states. The state’s 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 Jersey’s legislature to action. Still, it’s 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 Jersey’s misguided politicians could be as passionate about those issues as they are about repealing capital punishment.