As long as human civilization has existed, capital punishment, or the death penalty in the United States, has been a tool to punish convicted criminals. An “eye for an eye” approach to criminal justice documented as far back as ancient Babylon.
Only Fifty-six countries worldwide practice the death penalty in 2019. The only exception is many countries who only practice the death penalty for crimes against humanity. These fifty-six countries do makeup around 60% of the world population.
In the United States, the only crimes that qualify for capital punishment are murder, treason, or espionage. In other places around the world, countries use the death penalty more liberally. Countries like Iran utilize the death penalty for even low-level, non-violent offenses.
Here are the pros and cons of the death penalty:
The Pros of Capital Punishment
1. Some believe it is a deterrent against violent crime.
One intention of most laws is to deter crimes from happening. For example, tickets exist to provide a financial incentive not to speed or park in specific locations. Violent crime is something societies wish to avoid at all costs. For this reason, communities use strong deterrents like death to deter murder and other violent crimes for happening. When people know they’ll die if caught, they may be a lot less likely to commit them in the first place.
2. Some crimes are too horrific.
Some believe that at a certain point, rehabilitation is no longer possible. For someone like Samuel Little, who in 2019 admitted to killing as many as 93 people, there is no coming back. Capital punishment, to some, is a just punishment that equals a horrible crime like murder. Society can even use a safety net like this. Would you want a serial killer only serving 20 years and being released into society as he would be in some Scandinavian countries? A bonus is that it prevents these people from influencing other people incarcerated with them.
3. Prison overpopulation is a major issue.
As of 2019, there are 2.3 million people imprisoned in the United States. Because the United States incarcerates more people than anywhere else on earth, overcrowding is a significant issue. As a result, prisons are often unable to meet basic healthcare, hygiene, or living accommodations. Of those imprisoned, 179,000 people are in for murder. Capital punishment creates space for prisoners who are rehabilitable while dearling with over-populated prisons.
4. It can be a humane outcome.
Over time, the death penalty in many areas has evolved into a relatively painless and effective procedure. Lethal injection of drugs mixed with pain killers stops the convict’s painlessly. Drug shortages has created issues with the executions over the last few years, though. In 2011, Hospira stopped the manufacture of Pentothal. Pentothal, or Sodium Thiopental, was an anesthetic used to stop the pain of the drug that shuts down the heart, Potassium Chloride. Botched executions using knockoff and poorly sourced drugs are an issue. Despite this, lethal injection is much more compassionate than hangings, electrocution, and other former execution methods.
5. It’s impossible to escape from capital punishment.
When imprisoned, there’s always the chance that someone can escape. One of the most famous prison escapees was Earle Nelson, who killed 26 people after escaping a mental hospital numerous times. He even escaped one more time after his arrest for the murders in Canada. Capital punishment ensures that people who are truly incapable of rehabilitation don’t have the chance to escape and cause further damage.
6. It eliminates sympathy for the criminal
For as long as there have been mass murderers, fandom has grown around them. When Jack the Ripper prowled the streets of London in the 19th century, a media frenzy emerged. Ted Bundy had thousands of fans send him letters and even married one of them while on trial for murder in Florida. When people face the consequences for their actions, some believe that this demystifies their crimes, discouraging fandom and others from committing the same crimes.
The Cons of Capital Punishment
1. Not everyone on death row is guilty
Not everyone convicted of a capital crime is guilty of said crime. A University of Michigan study concluded that 4% of people on death row are innocent. We can’t know for sure how many innocent people the US executed over the years, but the case is strong that many have been. Jesse Tafero died in 1990 in a botched, painful electrocution. Years later, new evidence arose that another party had committed the murder. Our system isn’t perfect, and modern forensic techniques to prove someone’s guilt or innocence are coming out every year. Executing innocent people is a terrible failing of the US criminal justice system as a whole.
2. It does not deter violent crimes.
Many believe that capital punishment as a crime deterrent is a myth. Data shows that life in prison is just as likely to prevent murder as the death penalty. States in the US that have eliminated the death penalty do not see a spike in homicides. In fact, states like Texas who execute many people often have higher murder rates. Because the death penalty is o expensive, many even argue that it makes us less safe by removing funds from programs that actually deter crimes.
3. The death penalty is expensive
Capital punishment is costly. In a study of the California criminal justice system, a death sentence costs up to 18 times a life sentence. Overall in the United States, the median cost of a non-capital punishment case was $740,000, while a capital punishment case was $1.26 million. Because it is an irreversible form of punishment, the appeals process is long and complicated. It can take decades to complete, and during that time, states are paying up to $90,000 more per year to house them than their non-death row inmates.
4. It does not provide closure for families
While an execution may give a sense of closure for some, the problem is that the process is prolonged. The appeals process continuously dredges up old memories making families relive the crime for years. In many cases, the execution will never actually be carried out. In a study published by the Marquette Law Review, Marilyn Armour and Mark Umbreit viewed the effects of death penalty vs. life imprisonment cases. They concluded that the families of murder victims were happier in situations where life imprisonment was the sentence.
5. There are alternative punishments
The death penalty is not the only way to keep people from being reintroduced into society. There are over 200,000 people in the United States who are effectively serving life sentences. Of these, the US average fewer than five maximum security escapes per year. Life imprisonment is just as effective as the death penalty at keeping criminals off the streets.
6. It isn’t a deterrent for other crimes
Countries that use capital punishment for drug offenses like the Philippines and Indonesia do not see a decrease in crime. Rodrigo Duterte rose to the presidency in the Philipines on a promise of ending the country’s massive drug problem. Since then, over 5,000 judicial and extra-judicial executions took place. Duterte himself admitted that this tough stance on drugs had done nothing to solve the country’s drug problem.
7. Children get sentenced to death row.
Up until 2005, the United States could execute children under 18 years old. The Supreme Court deemed it cruel and unusual punishment in Roper v. Simmons. Between 1976 and 2005, the United States executed twenty-two people who were under the age of 18 when they committed the crime. It isn’t right to pass a punishment as harsh as capital punishment on someone who’s brain won’t be fully developed for years.
8. There’s no possibility of redemption or rehabilitation.
Some criminals are unrepentant psychopaths who will kill again no matter what you do. People like John Wayne Gacy or Samuel Little could never get better. Some people have the desire and will to get better and make amends. Stanley Williams founded the Crips and murdered at least four people during that period. In prison, he wrote children’s books and was an anti-gang activist that changed thousands of people’s lives. Executing prevented him from spreading more good in the world.
9. It is anti-poor and discriminatory
In a 2017 press release, the UN made the people from lower socio-economic classes are much more likely to receive the death penalty. Because of this, it is a penalty that seems to be reserved primarily for the poor. There are many reasons for this, but it mostly bakes out to the type of legal help people receive. They can’t afford high-quality lawyers. The public defenders they’re assigned are often overworked, leading to failed defenses. While awaiting trial, they also can’t afford bail, potentially hindering their ability to put together a solid case. Black men in America are particularly affected by this. They make up 50% of people on death row, while only making up 13% of the population.
10. Punishing murder with a murder.
It is counter-intuitive to punish a murderer by murdering them. This simply prolongs the cycle of violence. Society places the burden of yet another murder on the shoulders of the executioner. Whether they know it or not, this will have negative repercussions for the rest of their life. This is why there’s always a blank in one gun during firing squad executions. It allows everyone the thought that maybe their bullet did not kill the prisoner.
11. Trained professionals are not administering punishment.
A reason that many executions are botched, particularly with lethal injection, is that doctors are not performing them. When lethal injection was invented in 1980, the American Medical Association determined that lethal injection violated the “First do no harm” clause of the Hippocratic Oath. Doctors are not allowed to participate in executions, leaving it to untrained individuals.
Looking at the pros and cons of the death penalty, it is evident that there are far more cons than pros. People have been pushing inaccurate information for years to support capital punishment, but there isn’t room for it in the modern world. The risk that we take the life of even one innocent person far outweighs any perceived benefits that the death penalty might have.