Capital Punishment Essay - Death Penalty as a Deterrent to Crime
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The Death Penalty as a Deterrent to Crime
Brutally murdered by a man no one would have suspected, an innocent twelve-year old girl was taken from her mother. Although, this poor girl's mother was stricken with grief and anger, she did not wish for this murderer to die for her own sake, but to protect other innocent girls like her own. She sat and watched, staring into the eyes of the man who had killed her daughter. She watched as they inserted the needle containing the fluid that would take his life.
Is it morally unjust to execute criminals after they have committed a certain horrific crime upon another innocent victim? Until mid-twentieth century, this had been the tradition of practice, dating back to ancient times. In the United States especially, capital punishment is a hot topic of discussion and controversy. It is a difficult issue with many different points of view. Some are pro death penalty, others against the death penalty, and yet others with mixed feelings. So many different questions originate when the topic of the death penalty arises. Some of these are cost, sentencing equality, religious beliefs, the possibility of executing the innocent, and deterrence. These are just a few of the heated issues to consider. The death penalty is deterring crime, showing that individuals in the United States will be held responsible for their actions.
Some of the first death penalty laws can be dated as far back as the Eighteenth Century. This was a time when death was the only punishment for all crimes. These death sentences were done by means of beheading, drowning, beating to death, and burning alive, among others. From 1823 to 1837, the death penalty was eliminated, in Britain, for over 100 of the 222 crimes punishable by death. In 1967, after many legal challenges through the courts, executions were stopped in the United States. Finally, the Supreme Court placed a suspension on capital punishment in 1972, although later allowed it in 1977, under certain conditions (Changes).
Cost plays a major role in the death penalty. Opposing views say that it is far more expensive to execute someone than to give them life without parole. On the other hand, many others disagree. It has been estimated that life without parole cases will cost 1.2 million to 3.6 million dollars more than that equivalent to using the death penalty. On average, a life without parole sentence lasts thirty to forty years, while the annual cost of imprisonment is 40,000 to 50,000 dollars for each prisoner or more, each year (Lowe).
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Deterrent Death Penalty Capital Punishment Crime Year Old Hot Topic Innocent Victim
Cost increases are based on a few major points. The increases in prison cost include judicial decisions regarding prison conditions and the national inflation rate. Life without parole sentences are considerably more expensive in the medical aspect of cost, including huge costs of geriatric care (Kramer). Another major cost is the possibility of injury or death caused by a fellow violent inmate. Life without parole inmates are more likely to be violent because they do not fear additional punishment, other than the possibility of losing privileges. Death row inmates may be inclined to do the same, but the difference is that they may only be imprisoned on average six years, verses fifty years for the life without parole sentence. Death penalty cases prove to be significantly less expensive, than the death penalty equivalent life without parole cases (Lowe).
There are many questions on the limitations of the death penalty. Should race, mental illness, and age play a part in the deciding, if an individual should receive the death penalty? In 2001, 1,969 prisoners under sentence of death were white, 1,538 were African American, twenty-eight were American Indian, and thirty-three were Asian. These statistics only prove that these sentences were not racist (Bureau of Justice Statistics). However, mental illness, should be a factor to be considered during sentencing. Each individual case will be different, and it is up to the jury and judge to come up with a fair sentence. In 1992, the United States ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It states that the death penalty not be used on those who committed their crimes when they were younger than the age of eighteen. However, the U.S. reserved the right to execute juvenile offenders (Changes). The average age of arrest was twenty-eight in 2001; two percent of inmates were age seventeen or younger, and the youngest inmate under death sentence was nineteen (Bureau of Justice Statistics). Juveniles who are of an age to understand right and wrong should be punished according to their actions.
As with all controversial subjects, the argument of religion is very touchy. In the Bible teachings, we are told to obey God's will and uphold the laws of man. Man has a god given right to make choices in how to live life (Bible). Laws are made to govern the way that people can live together in a society. Those who fail to live according to law must realize they have made a choice and will suffer the consequences. Some people might argue that God is the only one who should take a life but there are those on death row who have claimed that it was God who instructed them to kill. Others such as members of the Taliban believe that by killing, they are becoming closer to God. Obviously, the ruling of God's will cannot be proven. In this country, we have the right to religious freedom so religion should not be a factor in death sentencing.
What about the risk of wrongfully executing an innocent person? One cannot say that it is not possible or that it has never happened, nothing is perfect. All good things come with a price to pay. Take into account that a far more extensive amount of innocent people have been saved because of the death penalty than the supposedly twenty-three innocent people, in this century, who were wrongfully executed. There has been no hard evidence found that this country has ever executed an innocent person in the past century (Congressional).
There is no doubt that keeping murderers alive and letting them walk among the innocent is far more dangerous than that putting them to death. Take into account that up to 13,000 American citizens are murdered each year by released and paroled criminals! (Lowe) Put this example into perspective. It is said that the death penalty should be taken away because of the risk of wrongful executions of the innocent, but if Americans used this theory for other instances what would be the outcome? Take for instance the fact that, on average, 45,000 people die from car accidents each year (Lowe). Driving is something many Americans take for granted, but surely would say, improves their quality of life. America accepts the risks and deaths caused by accidents but somehow cannot accept the risks and deaths caused by capital punishment. Now, can one not argue that removing convicted murderers from society would also improve the quality of lives? (Messerli)
Dudley Sharp, of the criminal-justice reform group "Justice For All," states, "From 1995 to 2000, executions averaged seventy-one per year, a 21,000 percent increase over the 1966-1980 period. The murder rate dropped from a high of 10.2 (per 100,000) in 1980 to 5.7 in 1999, a forty-four percent reduction. The murder rate is now at its lowest level since 1966." (Lowe) The murder rate being at its lowest support beliefs that having the death penalty lowers the crime rate.
One argument says that states without the death penalty have lower crime rates than those that do. One would have to take into account the population, number and size of cities, in each state to argue this point. It makes sense to say that larger cities with more people in them and states with more cities in them will have higher crime rates. So how can one say that the death penalty does not deter potential murders? If murderers are sentenced to death and executed, possible murderers will think twice before killing, for fear of loosing their own life (The Death Penalty Prevents). A punishment that is feared is more likely to deter a potential criminal, and people fear death more than anything else. If criminals were immune to fear then one might say that they are inhuman. Fear is an instinct that kicks in when one is faced with a deadly force. In this case, could the claim be true, that criminals do not fear death because they do not take the time to think about the consequences of their acts?
Horrific crimes of violence are in the news every day. American citizens are given a sense of protection by the enforcement of laws. It is known that capital punishment has deterred potential criminals and fewer in lockup saves taxpayers money. In most cases, innocent people are not executed nor has the argument of racism proved to be valid. The only proof that we have, is the fact that America is a safer country because of the death penalty. It shows criminals that they will be held responsible for their actions. Some of the states that do not allow the death penalty may be putting their citizens at risk by allowing convicted murderers to live. Just as it gave that poor mother ease, knowing that there was one less murderer roaming the streets looking for his next victim.
Bureau of Justice Statistics. "Summary Findings." Jan. 8, 2003. Oct. 22,
Capital punishment is such a costly, controversial, and divisive issue that, unless it succeeds in saving lives, it clearly should be abolished – as it already has been in the European Union and in 101 countries around the world But does the death penalty save lives? Let’s consider the relevant factors and the evidence.
Some feel the question of whether the death penalty deters can be argued as a matter of theory: capital punishment is worse than other penalties therefore it must lead to fewer killings. This contention misses much of the complexity of the modern death penalty. First, theory can’t tell us whether the spectacle of state-sanctioned killings operates to unhinge marginal minds into thinking that their own grievances merit similar forms of retribution that they then try to inflict on their own. Even if some other criminals were deterred by the death penalty, one must ask whether these avoided crimes would be more than offset by the possible brutalisation effect.
Second, operating a death penalty regime – at least in the United States – has been incredibly costly, as each case resulting in a death sentence will spend years in various types of legal appeals, eating up the valuable time of judges, prosecutors, and defence lawyers, overwhelmingly at government expense.
The best research on the issue suggests that life imprisonment is a less costly penalty, since locking someone up is far less expensive than both locking them up and paying a team of lawyers for many years – often decades – to debate whether a sentence of death should be imposed. In California, for example, execution is only the third leading cause of death for those on death row (behind old age and suicide).
Some might contend that the lengthy appeals are a needless burden that should be jettisoned so that the penalty is administered more cheaply and quickly, but the large number of exonerations of those on death row (155 including 21 by DNA evidence at last count) underscores the danger of any effort to short circuit the judicial process. Killing a few innocent defendants is an unavoidable consequence of having a capital regime – so unless there is some clear evidence of deterrence, it is hard to argue positively for the death penalty.
Lack of evidence
So what is the evidence on deterrence? Here the answer is clear: there is not the slightest credible statistical evidence that capital punishment reduces the rate of homicide. Whether one compares the similar movements of homicide in Canada and the US when only the latter restored the death penalty, or in American states that have abolished it versus those that retain it, or in Hong Kong and Singapore (the first abolishing the death penalty in the mid-1990s and the second greatly increasing its usage at the same), there is no detectable effect of capital punishment on crime. The best econometric studies reach the same conclusion.
A number of studies – all of which, unfortunately, are only available via subscripton – purported to find deterrent effects but all of these studies collapse after errors in coding, measuring statistical significance, or in establishing causal relationships are corrected. A panel of the National Academy of Sciences addressed the deterrence question directly in 2012 and unanimously concluded that there was no credible evidence that the death penalty deters homicides.
The report went on to say that the issue of deterrence should be removed from any discussion of the death penalty given this lack of credible evidence. But if the deterrence argument disappears, so does the case for the death penalty.
Those familiar with criminal justice issues are not surprised by the lack of deterrence. To get the death penalty in the United States one has to commit an extraordinarily heinous crime, as evidenced by the fact that last year roughly 14,000 murders were committed but only 35 executions took place.
Since murderers typically expose themselves to far greater immediate risks, the likelihood is incredibly remote that some small chance of execution many years after committing a crime will influence the behaviour of a sociopathic deviant who would otherwise be willing to kill if his only penalty were life imprisonment.
Any criminal who actually thought he would be caught would find the prospect of life without parole to be a monumental penalty. Any criminal who didn’t think he would be caught would be untroubled by any sanction.
A better way to address the problem of homicide is to take the resources that would otherwise be wasted in operating a death penalty regime and use them on strategies that are known to reduce crime, such as hiring and properly training police officers and solving crimes.
Over the past three decades there has been a downward trend in the number of murders that lead to arrest and conviction to the point that only about half of all murders are now punished. The graphic below shows the steady decline in the number of homicides cleared by arrest in Connecticut, which mimics the national trend. Of course, even if there is an arrest, there may not be a conviction so the percentage of killers who are punished is smaller than this figure suggests.
Far better for both justice and deterrence if the resources saved by scrapping the death penalty could be used to increase the chance that killers would be caught and punished – and taken off the streets.
To give a sense of the burden of capital punishment, note that over the past 35 years the state of California spent roughly $4 billion to execute 13 individuals. The $4 billion would have been enough to hire roughly 80,000 police officers who, if appropriately assigned, would be expected to prevent 466 murders (and much other crime) in California – far more than any of the most optimistic (albeit discredited) views of the possible benefits of capital punishment.
In other words, since the death penalty is a costly and inefficient system, its use will waste resources that could be expended on crime-fighting measures that are known to be effective. It is not surprising that last summer a federal judge ruled that California’s capital regime is unconstitutional on the grounds that it serves no legitimate penological interest.
The sharp decline in executions in the US from the peak of 98 in 1999 down to 35 last year (with death sentences falling from a 1996 peak of 315 to 73), coupled with the steady pace of states abolishing the death penalty over the past eight years (including conservative Nebraska in May) shows that “smart on crime” entails shunning capital punishment.
With zero evidence that the death penalty provides any tangible benefits and very clear indications of its monetary, human, and social costs, this is one programme about which there can be little debate that its costs undeniably outweigh any possible benefits.