In today’s world, terrible crimes are being committed. Many believe that these crimes deserve one fate: death. Debate over the merits of capital punishment continue on a daily basis. Proponents of capital punishment defend it mainly on two grounds: death is a fitting punishment for murder, and executions maximize public safety through incapacitation and deterrence. Opponents claim that it is inhumane, does not deter crime, leaves too much room for error, and in some cases is racist and discriminatory. This discussion will center on capital punishment, focusing on three topics: 1) views of the proponents; 2) views of the opponents; and finally, 3) possible solutions and alternatives to what is a very controversial and emotional issue facing our society.
Capital punishment supporters’ view is very simple: the death penalty works. Many base their judgment on religious principles. Regardless of their faith, they point to the Bible, Koran, Torah, or other scriptural texts that advocate an “eye for an eye” remedy for murder or other heinous crimes. However, religious faith aside, they also cite other evidence as proof of their convictions.
A recent Department of Justice study lends merit to their claim. During the 1930’s, murders hit an all-time high. Executions also peaked in 1935. In those distant days, people were executed fairly routinely and the number of executions coincided with the number of murders.
Over the next 30 years, both the murder rate and the number of executions declined. This could be interpreted two ways: murders declined because of some external reason (the end of Prohibition) and the number of executions fell accordingly; or the high number of executions pushed down the murder rate.
But after 1963, executions ceased altogether. Not because murders had ceased, but because the U.S. Supreme Court began its review of state capital cases, imposing various exclusionary rules for confessions and search-and-seizure. Critics believe this created a lengthy and almost endless appeals process. The immediate result was that executions virtually ended after 1964. In 1971 the justices declared all existing death penalties to be unconstitutional. This ban was not lifted until 1978. Only after legislative reformulation did more than half the states impose the death penalty on murderers by the 1990’s (Tucker, 2000).
Death-penalty proponents claim the impact on capital-punishment crimes are plain. Beginning at almost the exact point when executions ended, murder soared to unprecedented heights. The murder rate tied the 1933 record in 1973, broke it in 1974, broke it again in 1980, and peaked a third time in 1990-92. Then suddenly it plummeted, so that by 1999 we were once again back to the levels of 1966 when murder first began its upward sweep. Proponents say this proves that executions deter crime. Stop executing people, murders soar. Resume executing people, murders decline (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance/exe.txt).
Death-penalty proponents also dismiss the idea that capital punishment is “state sanctioned” murder. Syndicated columnist Charley Reese made an interesting analogy. Reese states that opponents equate execution and murder, believing that if two acts have the same ending or result, then those two acts are morally equivalent. He goes on to rationalize such questions as: 1) is the legal taking of property to satisfy a debt the same as auto theft; 2) Are kidnapping and legal incarceration the same if both involve imprisonment against one’s will; and 3) is rape and making love the same if both may result in sexual intercourse? Reese is also confounded by opponents who see no moral distinction between the slaughter of innocent people and the just execution of society’s human rights violators (www.prodeathpenalty.com).
This author finds it ironic and interesting that a vast majority of death penalty abolitionists also derive their opposition to capital punishment from religious beliefs, in many cases from the exact same previously mentioned scriptures. Be that as it may, opponents, like the proponents, offer practical evidence to support their position. Gilligan (2000) is an ardent abolitionist. He rationalizes that in over 20 years of psychologically examining prison inmates, that punishment does nothing to deter crime, it only serves to fester the hatred already built up inside most prisoners. Gilligan offers many studies that he claims show most criminals perpetuate violence because they have been victimized themselves, either by their personal upbringing or by society.
Racism is another factor pointed out by the opponents. Inevitably, with the racial history of this country, the effect of race in the application of the death penalty has become a central part of the death-penalty discourse. This is particularly true as some politicians are making the case for a death-penalty moratorium, in part to consider whether the death penalty is inherently racist.
Other such discussions begin with the obvious: the race of the defendant. The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reports that black murderers represent 35% of those executed, white murderers 56%. As the argument goes, this must be evidence of systemic racism, as blacks represent 12% of the population, whites 74%, and coupled with the fact that 98% of prosecutor’s are white.
The final charge of racism on this issue lies within those cases where blacks have been executed for murdering whites and whites have been executed for murdering blacks. There have been 144 blacks and 10 whites executed under such circumstances, or a ratio of 14-to-1 (http://www.essential.org/dpic.html).
Error in execution is another strong point for opponents. What if an innocent person is accidentally executed? Currently, anti-death penalty groups present claims that some 87 death row inmates have been “exonerated” from 1973 until now (www.andjusticeforall.com). In January 2000, the governor of the State of Illinois decreed a moratorium on capital punishment to ensure death row inmates had the advantage of reviewing new DNA evidence procedures applicable to their individual cases (Gilligan, 2000).
Finding alternatives to capital punishment is like trying to find alternatives to death in general. The practice has been part of the human culture for so long, that people on either side of the issue are unwillingly to budge on their perspectives. However, there are some options, even though it may take decades to change some entrenched views.
Option 1: Life in prison means life. Those found guilty of capital punishment related offenses are incarcerated for life which absolutely no chance of ever rejoining society. Of course, this option calls for some serious compromise from both state and federal legislative authorities, not to mention the corrections officer lobby, who claim such harsh punishment puts them at risk. Correction Officer officials contend that if an inmate knows they have absolutely no hope of freedom, then their behavior will become erratic and dangerous. Why bother behaving civilly when there is no possible benefit to it?
Option 2: Reach out during early childhood years. Many professionals in the sociology and psychology field believe that committed crimes are reflective of the person’s abusive childhood.
The more the child is love-oriented, punished with reason for bad behavior rather than corrective measures based on physical punishment, the more effective is the parents’ control over desired behavior and the stronger the development of the child’s guilt feelings for improper behavior (Berelson and Steiner, 1964).
Option 3: Rehabilitation. There are many advocates of this method, but opponents argue whether if one can be completely rehabilitated. With the advancement of modern technology, there have been some inventions such as electronic homing devices that have kept some paroled convicts in check. How far society is willing to go with the technology/rehabilitation relationship is unknown. Will society embrace some type of microchip implants to control behavior, or see it as “nazi” or “orewellian” tactics?
Capital punishment remains a very hotly contested ethical and legal issue. Proponents claim that even if one doesn’t buy the deterrence argument, that there is no doubt that it sends a clear message that we as a society will not tolerate certain types of behavior. And for those who engage in those types of criminal activity, the punishment will be the ultimate sacrifice.
Opponents maintain that such repercussions are barbaric and outdated. They claim that it is no more than revenge. They believe the solution to crime and the prevention of violence cannot be achieved through the penal system. Opponents reason problems of crime and violence can only be solved by reforming our social and economic system, and reformulating the cultural and moral values that have produced that system and are in turn reinforced by it.
Until both sides can find some common ground, the debate will continue to rage.
Berelson, B. and Steiner, G. (1964). Human Behavior: An Inventory of Scientific Findings. New York: Harcourt, Brace ; World.
Gilligan, J. (2000, Fall). Punishment and violence: is the criminal law based on one huge mistake? Social Research. 745-783.
Tucker, W. (2000, October). Why the death penalty works. American Spectator. 34-37.