Throughout the history of criminal law and policymaking in the United States as well as in other countries, the death penalty has always been the issue of paramount importance kept on the front burner by media, policymakers and public. The controversy in terms of capital punishment relates not only to religion and morality, but is also associated with considerable social and economic costs. In other words, “the contemporary debate over capital punishment involves a number of important arguments based on either moral principles or social welfare considerations” (Dezhbakhsh & Shepherd, 2003, p. 1).
Numerous researchers and influential leaders of public opinion present different arguments both for and against death penalty, making an appeal to moral, ethical, social, and other aspects of this disputable matter. According to Dezhbakhsh & Shepherd (2003), “the primary social welfare issue, viewed as the most important single consideration for both sides in the death penalty controversy, is whether capital punishment deters capital crimes” (p. 1).
Consequently, one of the most fundamental arguments of individuals advocating the death penalty is that it helps prevent and deter murder. Supporters of capital punishment argue that clear and distinct consciousness of possibility of deprivation of life is likely to deter potential criminals and offenders from committing serious crimes. However, the statistical data from numerous studies and researches clearly demonstrates that the situation is just the other way round: for the past decades, murder rates have been considerably higher in states with death penalty as compared to those where it was not applied. Statistical figures as of 1970’s to 1980’s proves that “murder rates in the states without the death penalty were consistently lower and averaged only 63% of the corresponding rates in the states retaining it” (Lamperti, 2010).
Another crucial argument in favor of the death penalty may be attributed to the economic costs of this procedure. According to Rahiim (2006), it “is more cost effective than keeping an individual in jail for life” (p. 1). Although nowadays any execution method is considered to be unreasonably expensive, its cost is nevertheless lower than the cost of a life imprisonment. It also should be taken into consideration that life imprisonment is extremely costly to the tax payers “not only for the cost of housing and feeding the prisoner but because of the numerous appeals which wastes man hours and money” (Rahiim, 2006, p. 1).
The underlying message behind this argument is that if there were no executions and no threat of death to an individual who commits a murder or other major offence, then that individual would be guaranteed to be provided with decent living facilities and nourishment until their next parole hearing. “By treating criminals in this manner, we are encouraging behavior that will result in a prison sentence”, which may be considered as another major argument in favor of the existence of death penalty (Rahiim, 2006, p. 1).
Despite the rationality of the above-mentioned arguments for the death penalty, there is an ever-increasing opposition to it due the following factors: “growing doubts about the morality of the death penalty, awareness of western Europe’s abandonment of capital punishment, lack of deterrence evidence, widespread belief in the racially discriminatory use of the death penalty, and increasing concern about the arbitrariness of death penalty sentences” (Dezhbakhsh & Shepherd, 2003, p. 4).
One of the major arguments against death penalty is the morality, or more precisely the lack of morality, of executions. Death penalty is often regarded as deprivation of an individual’s (a criminal’s) life for the purpose of protecting the right to life of other individuals. That is why “many people believe capital punishment is morally impermissible. In their view, executions are inherently cruel and barbaric” (Sunstein & Vermeule, 2005, p. 2).
Speaking from the moral perspective, the opponents of death penalty “often they add that capital punishment is not, and cannot be, imposed in a way that adheres to the rule of law” (Sunstein & Vermeule, 2005, p. 2). In other words, they argue that regardless of circumstances, it is simply immoral to put a person to death when this life was given by God.
One more rational argument against the death penalty relates to the increasing concern about the arbitrariness, potential errors, and miscarriage of justice in respect of capital punishment sentences. The history of criminal justice in the United States as well as in other countries knows more than on case when an innocent person was condemned to death and subjected to execution.
That is where the issue of irreversibility arises, which is another fundamental argument against death penalty. Due to the irreversibility of execution procedures, “little room exists for human error in the process that leads to conviction. In some instances, inmates have barely escaped execution due to last-minute presentation of evidence that proved their innocence” (Volpe, 2002, p. 2). This means that due to operational errors and miscarriage of justice some individuals might be deprived of lives.
Taking into consideration all the above-mentioned arguments for and against death penalty, it is quite difficult to arrive at a distinct general conclusion regarding the necessity of existence or abolition of death penalty. What is clear: is that both the advocates of death penalty and the opponents can adduce numerous rational arguments to support their point of view and an individual’s position on this matter strongly depends on his/her moral and ethical values as well as other internal and external factors.
Dezhbakhsh, H., & Shepherd, J. (2003). The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Evidence from a 'Judicial Experiment' Social Science Research Network (SSRN) Journal, 1-30. doi:10.2139/ssrn.432621
Lamperti, J. (2010, March). Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder? A brief look at the evidence. Retrieved May 4, 2015, from https://math.dartmouth.edu/~lamperti/my DP paper, current edit.htm
Rahiim, M. (2006). Cost-Benefit Analysis, the Death Penalty, and Rationales for Punishment. Senior Thesis Projects, 2003-2006. Retrieved May 4, 2015, from http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_interstp3/66
Sunstein, C. R., & Vermeule, A. (2005). Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs. Social Science Research Network (SSRN) Electronic Journal, 1-52. doi:10.2139/ssrn.691447
Volpe, T. (2002). Capital Punishment: Does Death Equal Justice? E-Vision Journal, 2, 1-3.