Death penalty is considered one of the extremely volatile issues in America nowadays. The debate on the subject has caused a lot of divisions in the America society. There are those who consider it a justifiable mode of punishment that can deter crime, whereas others consider it a form of legalized murder. The clergy have also expressed their moral concerns regarding the issue. There are various issues involved in death penalty: ethical, philosophical and religious groups have clouded the debate over capital punishment otherwise called the death penalty. However, it is only tangible evidence that can prove capital punishment be a prevention to murder and homicide cases. The fact is that deterrents have been used as a central argument in the pro and anti-death penalty debate. There has not been a unanimity concerning the debate as to whether capital punishment can divert murders as compared with long term punishment. Throughout the history of the U.S. there have been arguments on why and why not the death penalty should be abolished. The aim of this essay is to discuss on the details of the death penalty issue in the U.S.
Death Penalty Debate
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Those arguing for capital punishment cite biblical injunctions of ‘a tooth for a tooth’ and an ‘eye for an eye’ and consider death penalty as a deterrent factor for violent crimes. Those opposing capital punishment argue that it is barbaric and antiquated mode of punishment that has been abolished and has minimal effect on the occurrence of certain crimes. The two main issues surrounding the complex debate on death penalty are whether death penalty should be applied to everyone and if so, then how it can be applied fairly. The argument as to whether there should be death penalty is multi-stranded, the first strand regard the morality of death penalty; is it morally justified, particularly concerning social consequences and the second strand addresses the consequences of death penalty directly, that is, does death penalty serve the principle goals particularly as a deterrent to crime?
There have been a lot of calls that the government should bear the responsibility to ensure that it acts in a just manner on matters of death penalty. Death penalty pose the risk of innocent death, it is also applied in an unfair way and biased manner. Death penalty is unjustifiable philosophically. Death penalty is not administered fairly; according to the late Supreme Court judge William Brennan, death penalty is administered in a freakish and discriminatory way and in some cases on innocent defendants. Race is one aspect of discrimination that characterizes discrimination of death penalty; Afro-Americans are four times likely to be executed than the white Americans (Feinman, 2010).
Discrimination surrounding death penalty: Justice Harry Blackmun in 1994 argued death penalty should be imposed fairly or should not be imposed at all. Despite the efforts of states and various courts to generate a formula and rules of procedure to meet these challenges, death penalty still remains fraught with discrimination, arbitrariness and caprice. It has been argued that almost half of the people facing or who have faced death penalty are blacks. Gender has also been another factor that determines death penalty in the criminal system. In the United States of America, there is a high likelihood of women being subjected to death penalty than men. The execution of Troy Davis, an Afro-American, who was convicted of killing a police officer, is a perfect illustration of how controversial death penalty cases can be. Afro-Americans have been victims of unjustifiable death penalties when compared to whites. This makes the black Americans live in a state of perpetual fear. Death penalty in the USA is inherently biased on various factors in matters of race, gender and the financial resources of the perpetrators before it implements execution (Crocker, 2011). Racists’ hand and racial biases influence death sentences. The Supreme Court ruled in a Georgia case that death penalty did not violate the constitution as long as its administration was devoid of arbitrariness and discrimination and it is unless these errors of racism are corrected, death penalty may not be a viable option. The American Bar Association argued for an halt to all cases of death penalty all over the country until the time when the criminal justice system can try and administer justice fairly without due regard to factors like race and income. This is after it had tracked the trend of death penalties and observed that the mentally retarded defendants were discriminated against (Croker, 2011).
Cost: there have been some arguments that death penalty is economical on dispensing justice since it costs less money to execute a convict than to maintain him or her in prison. Imprisonment is an expensive way of meting justice to a criminal. There are, however, some arguments that death penalty is an expensive way of dispensing justice than the normal imprisonment, it is estimated that it costs three times less to imprison a criminal convict than the cost of capital punishment; these high costs might result from legal fees, overtime pay for prison employees and paying for the judges. Despite execution being considered to be costly, it is worthy to administer only if it is just, unjust execution should not occur.
Deterrence: more central to the death penalty debate is whether it can be an effective deterrent for future criminal activities. Statistical figures indicate that those states with death penalty experience more cases of homicide than those states without death penalty. It is argued that if death penalty serves as a preventing factor to potential criminal cases, it must be consistently, equitably and promptly employed.
Various American public voices support death penalty. Males, older, whites and republicans are the ardent supporters of death penalty. Similar public opinion also indicates that death penalty is not applied fairly and they agree that many innocent people have fallen victims to death penalty (Richette, 1995).
Rational Choice Model in Death Penalty
The debate on capital punishment has been characterized by differing perspectives since the days of Isaac Ehrlich in 1975. Most of the arguments are based on rational choice model, which explained the existing trade off between the costs and the benefits of illegal behavior like murder. The rational choice framework was used to evaluate how individuals responded to enforcement actions. From Ehrlich’s explanation, rational response to death penalty was considered a decline to the propensity in the decline of murder case. The circumstances surrounding capital punishment have taken into consideration marginal rates of murders with which they were associated with. The heavy reliance on deterrence is based on the assumption that individuals, who are likely to commit crimes like murder, can have the audacity to take into consideration the likely punishment they will meet in case they are detected or convicted (Yorke, 2008).
There have been some proposals that capital punishment can aid in protecting the police or the prison guards. There have been some occasions which describe that capital punishment has minimum rates of homicide, it may go in the opposite direction where capital punishment can lead to increased cases of homicide. To the restoration of the death penalty by the supreme court of the United States of America in the year 1979 was prompted by the case in Gregg vs. Georgia; there had been some arguments that death penalty could save lives by helping to deter or reduce cases of murders. The economic mode theory formulated by Gary Becker emphasized the perception that murderers could choose between legal and illegal behavior based on the threat of execution (Fagan, 2011).
Arguments in Favor of Death Penalty as a Deterrent Measure
It has also been regarded that death penalty should act as a golden rule where an eye for an eye is meted. According to Michael Chung, while writing in an article in the Massachusetts press, which advocated the death penalty as an ultimate solution to lower the death rates of murder, but his arguments were contradicted by the facts that the cities of Dallas, Houston and Miami have low rates of deaths when compared with New York and Boston despite their application of the contrary. Death penalty is only one of the deterrent factors of murder cases but there are other ones that contribute to higher cases of murders like poverty and the frequent witnessing of murder cases in TV videos and movies. Death penalty is applied in the city of Texas, Florida and Louisiana, the cities are considered to be the leading in executions but still they remain the leading states in death murders when calculated per 100, 000. This is an indication that death penalty can promote murder instead of deterring it. It was proved in the city of New York that execution extended the rates of murders. Some countries have witnessed reduced cases of murder after abolition of death penalty. This has been evidenced in countries like Canada. There have never been factual facts as to prove that death penalty is a deterrent for murder and murder rates do not absolutely provide evidence that death penalty prevents murder. Diverting death penalty can be deduced through examination of other deadly situations. Those who are in support of death penalty have some disregard for the conviction and the execution of innocent people, since it may result in some cases where people will be executed for crimes that they never committed as witnessed in the execution of Willie Darden in 1988 and Roger Coleman in Florida and Virginia respectively. This was done despite the strong evidence presented in their submissions (Morrison, 1993).
The preference of death penalty as a deterrent to homicides was prompted by numerous claims that exonerations, pardons and commutations have led to spiraling cases of murders. There have been some arguments that murders of passion can only be deterred by death penalty, while acknowledging that the preventing effects of executions can be powerful enough to reduce robberies and other violent crimes due to the fear factor. Death penalty can only be administered for the protection of the society and meting punishment to unrehabilitated offenders and if it cannot achieve the above mentioned then there can be no need for it. Death penalty should be considered as a mode of doing justice or to deter others in order to achieve penal objectives. For these two penal objectives to justify death penalty, the opponents for death penalty must demonstrate otherwise, whereas the advocates for death penalty can rest their case on the two. The arguments that capital punishment can be dysfunctional because it does not deter crimes or murder, can be strong and a persuasive one (Morrison, 1993).
Arguments against Death Penalty
Death penalty can be considered unjust because it may lead to the executions of innocent persons or it may be used to punish the guilty poor and not the rich. The claims for death penalty should only be true if it aims at achieving justice as one of the punishments. For death penalty to be a deterrent, it should only be used to punish the guilty beyond doubt and not the innocent. Justice should be central to the arguments if death penalty is to be a preventing measure to murders and other violent crimes (Den Haag, 1969).
The debate on acknowledging death penalty as a deterrent was sparked by President George Bush in the year 2000 when he argued that the fundamental reason for the support of death penalty was to save lives of other people. He further argued that if it can achieve that goal then it should be the measure. Despite the street, public and general arguments, it has been neither scientifically verified nor factual evidences have been presented to substantiate it. The deterrent effect of capital punishment provides a strong ground for resisting the abolition movement. Scholars have advocated for capital punishment only for those people who are convicted for murder since it will serve to deter other murder cases (Reiman & Pojman, 1998).
The foundation of death penalty as a deterrent to murder cases was ignited in 1975 by Professor Isaac Ehrlich who analyzed the relationship between homicides and executions in the USA by using data for the period 1933 to 1969 and found out that for every one execution there were eight fewer cases of murder. This was later disputed by Peter Passel and John Taylor who argued that Ehrlich’s case was generalized since it was the period of mid 1960s, homicide cases declined in all the American states including the ones that never applied death penalty in their penal rulings and his conclusion could not be corroborated in the analysis of the relationship between execution and murder in the seven years preceding a murder. A research by Dezhbakhsh, Rubin, and Shepherd which was published in the Stanford Law review established that for every one execution there were 18 lives saved. This research did not run the regression which was claimed. It was established however that there was a threat of regression leading to the opposite results where a death penalty was linked to 18 more murders (Donohue & Wolfers, 2006).
Various psychologists and criminologists who have examined this issue argue that there is no deterrent effect achieved from death penalty. The arguments on the debate are either clouded on moral principles or social welfare considerations. It has been observed that the debate on capital punishment is based on ethical and moral considerations and the reservations are based on the risk of errors, which are inherent in justice legal system. The errors may be occasioned by political, cultural or even legal corruption, which may be irreversible upon the application of the death penalty. The objectivity of deterrence is independent from any subjective argument in favor of the debate and it is an independent penal mode. The estimation of the magnitude of the deterrent effect of death penalty is a result of a trade off between execution of the murderer and the preservation of the live of the victims that it can help save. Death penalty demands a balance of the two positions and hence it requires an evaluation (Ehrlich, 1975).
Economic Model Application in Death Penalty
There has been the application of economic theory in the death penalty debate. This has presented both empirical evidence and analytical considerations that were lacking. It argued for the notion that offenders have the tendency to respond to incentives and particularly to punishment and law enforcement to deter the commission of particular crimes.
Van den Haag who applied utilitarian approach to the debate argued that death penalty does not deter other individual for committing crimes of murder; he also expressed that there are categories of criminals as well as exceptional circumstances that death penalty can be a possible deterrent to murder cases. Further more den Haag argued that there is no empirical and statistical evidence to justify reduced cases of homicide as a result of death penalty. According to him, death penalty is only favored over imprisonment due to its added severity, which may be a deterrent or not. Since it is necessary to spare the victims as opposed to sparing murderers, there is a burden of verifying that severity, which is inherent and irrevocable. There is nothing to deterrence which lies on the opponents of death penalty (Bedau, 1970).
Death penalty poses a dilemma between saving the live of an innocent person and saving one, who has committed a heinous crime. The innocent are more worthy of help than those who are guilty of squandering the assistance. This argument has been related to capital punishment where it is posited that some human beings are more worthy than others where as some have relinquished their right not to be killed (Lamperti, n.d.). There is a unanimity that if there is fifty percent chance of executing a murderer so as to save innocent victims then majority would be of that opinion. If there is evidence to the effect that death penalty can deter or is responsible for the deaths of innocent people then death penalty can be effective. Though the opponents argue that here is no evidence to substantiate the fact capital punishment can deter murder, they agree that the evidence may be based on commonsense experience. The abolitionists in the debate argue that though statistical and empirical evidence exists in favor of deterrent effect of capital punishment, the facts may not be decisive for a conclusive argument and life sentence is still an option (Reiman & Pojman, 1998).
The argument on deterrence effects on death penalty is based only on an assumption without any justifiable evidence. It is only through commonsense that criminals will be deterred by the spirit of fear because human beings fear death more than spending life in prison; hence, people will be deterred by execution than life imprisonment. Despite the fact that death penalty can be worse than life in prison it can not be definitive that it will deter criminals from committing murders (LaFollette, 2002).
The perspective that death penalty may help prevent cases of murder still remains just a matter of believe and there has been no factual effect to support it. The USA for example has not had an experiment for close to half a century to verify death penalty as an enough measure to deter murder cases. This makes it difficult to arrive at strong conclusions on the debate. The facts presented in support of death penalty as a measure to deter crimes are fragile. Where as evidence indicates that death penalty may increase the rates of murder, it is still possible that it may decrease it as well. Common sense enables people to learn that criminals prefer to be out of jail and that the threat of public and social humiliation can deter people from further committing crimes and last, long sentence can as well be a restrain to commission of crimes. There is absolutely no reason to believe that innocent lives can be saved only with death penalty as opposed to less severe penalties like life in prisons or lengthy sentences like 20 years without a parole.
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