The death penalty in the United States has long been a controversial issue – the idea of putting someone to death for their crimes is thought, by some, to be an antiquated idea that went out with the stocks. However, there is still significant public support for the measure as a deterrent. Despite the prison costs and the flaws inherent in the justice system, it becomes somewhat clearer that the death penalty is not an unconstitutional measure. Given the research that shows that the death penalty is an effective deterrent for murder, it should remain a viable and permissible measure for punishment for violent offenders.
In recent years, the public support for the death penalty has remained fairly consistent. As it stands today, 64% of people will support the death penalty as a form of punishment if the person has been convicted of a murder (Newport, 2010). Other polls (ones which include life without parole as an option) place the public support for the death penalty at approximately 50%, the other half supporting the ‘life without parole’ alternative. (AmnestyUSA, 2011).
There are those who believe that the death penalty is a necessary deterrent against violent crimes occurring to others in the future. In cases of murder, it is thought by many that the threat of death itself is thought to prevent people from performing that particular crime. According to Judge Paul Cassell, “The death penalty’s incapacitative benefit comes from preventing the individual murderers who are apprehended and executed from killing again” (2008, p. 17). The death penalty provides general deterrence, which involves the logical restraining of a much bigger portion of the population who could potentially murder. What’s more, specific deterrence occurs when individual murderers are executed in order to prevent them from killing again. With these things in mind, the death penalty provides an incentive for people to stop from murdering, as it a permanent and severe form of punishment.
Studies have shown emphatically that the death penalty does deter murder (“Death Penalty Deters Murder,” 2011). Deterrence acts as one of four justifications for punishment, along with retribution, incapacitation and rehabilitation. While some of these deterrents may be ethically and morally different, they are all still legitimate and purposeful. States who have executions have seen a direct correlation between the increase of executions and the decreasing of murders, noting that for each execution, 74 fewer murders were performed the next year (“Death Penalty Deters Murder”, 2011).
There is also a significant question whether or not those who are being punished are actually guilty of the crimes they committed. The doubt is so severe that states such as New Mexico have banned the death penalty, on the grounds that “if the state is going to undertake this awesome responsibility, the system to impose this ultimate penalty must be perfect and can never be wrong” (AFP, 2009). While capital punishment is still permissible, the imperfections of the justice system have to be improved somewhat in order to consider the death penalty a just punishment that is only meted out to those who are truly guilty of these crimes.
The costs go up substantially when factoring in the money funneled into the trials for these death penalty cases, despite the fact they are already costly post-conviction. “Capital punishment in America is characterized by extensive judicial review,” which means that substantial work and time is allotted to making sure the sentence was arrived at fairly (Garland et al., p. 15). The two phases for cases where a prosecutor wishes to administer a death sentence include conviction and sentencing; due to the harsh nature of the crime, extra time is allotted for selection of a fair jury, and to carry out special motions. This can often go right back to the taxpayer; if a trial seeks a death sentence and does not get it, all of the money that went into the capital pretrial and trial proceedings will be billed to the taxpayer. When factoring in the cost of a life imprisonment or retrial, the bill to the average citizen increases substantially (AmnestyUSA, 2011). Given the outdated and ineffective nature of the death penalty, it should be removed as an option through abolition. This would prevent ambitious prosecutors from spending substantial time and taxpayer money on calls for a death sentence that may not even be administered.
This lowering of public approval of the death sentence is reflected in actual sentences, since 2000, there has been a significant dropoff in the number of death sentences that are meted out each year; in fact, they have dropped to the lowest levels ever seen since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. The number of actual executions is smaller as well, dropping to nearly 50 convicts killed each year (AmnestyUSA, 2011). Given the diminished capacity and usage of the death penalty, there is even more reason to abolish it, since it is not used often enough to be feasible as a practice.
The ethical debate on capital punishment is made even more complicated when considering the statistics involved with executing potentially innocent convicts. Death row inmates since 1973 have been released on a regular basis on account of wrongful convictions that were determined after the fact. Over 130 people have experienced release from death row because of new evidence proving their innocence; significant examples include Ray Krone in 2002, who was released after a decade of imprisonment because of new DNA evidence that proved his innocence (AmnestyUSA, 2011).
Despite these numbers, however, it must be said that the benefits of the death penalty as a successful deterrent means that the number of people potentially saved through these efforts are much more than the risks of executing an innocent person. Though the system undoubtedly needs to be improved, the principle of capital punishment remains effective. The onus lies on the rest of the judicial system to catch up with the existence of the death penalty in making sure that they have the right person.
In conclusion, there are a number of reasons why the death penalty is an effective and necessary means of punishment. It has been shown that the justice system is effective at catching and convicting guilty parties to a crime, to the degree where there is too much risk of convicting innocent men to make capital punishment an option. Capital punishment has been shown to not violate the US Constitution, and there is no legitimate right in the courts to deny the death penalty as a result. The death penalty has been shown to be an effective deterrent to murder.
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Cassell, P. “In Defense of the Death Penalty.” Journal of the Institute for the Advancement
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“The Death Penalty Deters Murder.” (2011). The Ethics of Capital Punishment.
“The Death Penalty Does Not Violate the US Constitution.” (2011). The Ethics of Capital
Amnesty International. “U.S. Death Penalty Facts” Amnesty International USA. Web. August
Garland, D., Meranze, M., & McGowen, R. America’s death penalty:between past and
present. New York: New York University Press, 2010. Print
Newport, F. “In U.S., 64% Support Death Penalty in Cases of Murder.” Gallup. Web. Nov. 8,