The problem of death penalty has been considered from various points of view during more than 200 years. The judicial system has significantly changed during this period of time, and for every century, there were different arguments for and against capital punishment. The purpose of this paper is to consider these arguments and to make a balanced conclusion regarding the state of capital punishment.
The supporters of death penalty provide a number of arguments, the main of them being crime deterrence, incapacitation of the criminals, fairness of retribution in the justice system (Rozenman, 2007) and the elimination of prison overpopulation. Cost arguments were also used in the past, but recent investigations show that the total cost of capital punishment system significantly exceeds the costs of life imprisonment of the same criminals (Steiker & Steiker, 2010). A century ago the retention of capital punishment was also viewed as the effective antidote to the Halifax law and lynching issues; one more argument in favor of death penalty was quite popular in the 1960s – eugenics (Steiker & Steiker, 2010). In the beginning of the 20th century, the eugenics movement in crime and punishment studies was quite powerful. A large contribution to this theory was done by Cesare Lombroso, who defined a specific human type, Homo delinquens, and considered it to be a step back in the evolutionary process (Steiker & Steiker, 2010). Thus, eugenics was one of the most powerful arguments in the middle of the past century.Let us analyze the actuality of these arguments nowadays, taking into consideration the modern state of affairs in the justice system. The argument of crime deterrence can still be actual, to a certain extent: according to statistics, after the abolishment of capital punishment in Britain in 1965 the homicide rate has doubled, and the proportion of crimes formerly associated with death penalty has increased (Rozenman, 2007). At the same time, there is evidence that capital punishment is only deterrent for thoroughly planned crimes, and the rate of the crimes committed in the heat of the moment virtually did not change (Steiker & Steiker, 2010).
While capital punishment serves the purpose of incapacitation of the criminals, life imprisonment without pardon might result in the same effect, provided that security in the prisons is reliable. The function of capital punishment related to the fairness of retribution is currently a very questionable issue: the period between jailing and prosecution might stretch to several years or even decades. During this period of time, family and relatives of the victim might feel very miserable, and such retarded justice is in fact worse than any inconsistency between the crime and the punishment. The arguments which were popular in the past century are no longer applicable, since current system of justice can effectively object lynching, and the argument related to eugenics is covered by life imprisonment, since the criminal will not be able to have more descendants in the prison. However, the argument regarding prison overcrowding is quite actual: prisons in the UK, USA and other developed countries are becoming more and more overcrowded (Steiker & Steiker, 2010). This argument can be partly compensated by the prisoner’s labour, but it still remains actual for all countries with a well-developed justice system.
Regarding the cost argument, it was recently found that the cost of capital punishment has become greater than the cost of even lifetime imprisonment due to the phenomenon of the “death row” (Steiker & Steiker, 2010). The costs of death penalty have escalated due to high reversal rates, the use of experts, many procedures preceding the final decision, long appeal periods, etc. Overall, the costs of “death row” incarceration constitute additional $90,000 per inmate (Steiker & Steiker, 2010). The taxpayers’ funds could have been used more effectively, and part of these funds could be used for the prevention of crime and violence, for example.
Overall, according to Hawkins (2002), 80% of voters supported abolishing or significant reform of the capital punishment system in 2002. The strongest argument against capital punishment is the possibility of executing an innocent person; 65% of the people voting against capital punishment are concerned by the possibility of executing an innocent person (Hawkins, 2002). According to Hawkins (2002), approximately one person out of nine who are convicted to death should be exonerated. The effectiveness of a justice system which gives errors in more than 11% of cases is quite doubtful. Moreover, the statistics shows that capital punishment system is discriminative towards racial minorities, mentally ill or retarded convicts and impoverished individuals. The risk to be condemned to death for people who cannot afford to hire a good attorney is significantly higher than for more wealthy convicts. In addition to this, there is a variety of human factors affecting the fairness of court decisions. There have been cases when suspects were represented by ineffective lawyers (sleepy, drunken, mentally ill) at capital punishment processes. Such factors as biased perception of the suspect, lack of experience, dishonesty and even tampering of the lawyer can also affect the result of the trial (Hawkins, 2002). Even if the suspect is pleaded guilty of the crime, there might be many circumstances resulting in either criminal prosecution for this person, or in life imprisonment. Justice Stewart in 1972 has strikingly compared the probability of death penalty decision in the modern justice system with the probability to be struck by lightning (Hawkins, 2002).
It is possible to see that currently there are many powerful arguments for the abolition of death penalty, namely the cost of the “death row” and additional costs created by the whole capital punishment system, probability of executing innocent persons, discrimination and the dependence of the sentence from external factors. At the same time, the arguments of the supporters of death penalty are mostly ineffective, with the only reasonable argument being overcrowding in the prisons. The deterrence argument does not have effective data proving it (and there might be alternative methods of crime deterrence), and such arguments as incapacitation of criminals and fairness of execution are currently inconsistent. Basing on these arguments, it is possible to conclude that the system of capital punishment in the USA is no longer effective, and should be eliminated.
Hawkins, S. W. (2002). Do we need the death penalty?: It is immoral and ineffective. The World & I; Washington.
Rozenman, E. (2007). Do we need the death penalty?: Yes, It’s Ethical and Effective. The Washington Post; Washington, April 29, pg B8.
Steiker, C.S. & Steiker, J.M. (2010). Capital Punishment: A Century of Discontinuous Debate. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 101 (3): 643-690.