Capital punishment, which some also call the death penalty, has been around in society for hundreds of years. Ever since it began, there have been discussions as to whether it is morally right, and as to whether it actually deters criminals. Some believe that the prospect of being put to death often stops criminals from committing violent acts. Others believe exactly the opposite, stating that those that commit violent crimes are driven to do so for various reasons, and whether they have the chance of being put to death or not will not stop them from doing what they feel they must do.
Some serial killers and other violent individuals believe that they will never be caught. Others think that they are doing God’s work, or they cite other ‘important’ reasons for the killings and violent acts that they partake in. Sometimes this is due to mental disorders, but there are other reasons that people commit acts of this nature.
Regardless of these reasons, however, violent acts can and do occur and whether these people should be put to death for their crimes remains a hotly debated issue.
On one side of the debate, there are those that believe that killing is morally and ethically wrong, whether it is the killer and his victims or the government and the killer. The ethical dilemmas that are faced by this issue are not designed to be discussed here. They are important and worthy of discussion and thought, but the scope of this paper does not allow for space to debate the ethical issues that involve the death penalty as it pertains to violent individuals and their reasons for their actions.
The purpose of this paper is to leave those issues aside and determine whether there is a basis of truth in the statement that capital punishment deters violent crime. This statement is used by many who believe in the death penalty, and they argue that these criminals will not be able to do any more harm, which is certainly true, and not a question for debate. What is debatable, however, is whether the idea of the death penalty affects those that might commit violent crimes, and whether it stops them from doing so. There are many that believe this, and others that insist that there is little to no effect.
Both sides of the argument will be addressed here, so that conclusions can be drawn from the information presented that will hopefully shed some light on the debate and determine which side is correct. There is, however, seemingly much more information available that is against the death penalty than for it. It is also possible that a determination will not be able to be made due to the fact that there are so many issues and beliefs that surround each side, and statistics can be made to show many things, depending on who is utilizing them and how the numbers are manipulated. It is for this reason that statistics will not play a large role in the scope of this paper, as numbers often vary.
Argument for the Death Penalty
Those that argue for the death penalty state that, not only does it keep the person in question from committing any more violent acts, but it also serves as a lesson for those that are considering these types of acts in the future. It is not only the United States that has this problem, as many other countries are also concerned about crime rates (Bedau, 1998). In some other countries there are people that feel that doing away with the death penalty offers no deterrent for those that would rape and murder innocent people for some reason, or sometimes for no real reason at all (Bayat, 1999).
It is believed that the criminal element that is aware of the death penalty will spend more time considering whether the act they are thinking of committing is worth the price that they might ultimately have to pay (Delfino & Day, 2008). The opinion is that many criminals will feel that risking their life for the violent act is not worth the price, and they will refrain from committing these kinds of crimes. Few people, even criminals, have a death wish, and it is believed that this lack of desire for their own death will keep them from causing the deaths of others (Delfino & Day, 2008). Despite opposition from those that believe the death penalty should be stopped, some statistics do show that the number of murders does rise when the death penalty is not in force, and this number falls when the death penalty is reinstated (Johansen, 1998).
Another point of this argument is that the death penalty brings closure for the victims of the families that have lost loved ones. There is apparently a satisfaction, at least for some, upon seeing these people give up their life at the hands of the government. The chapter of their lives that dealt with that person has come to an end, and they can finally feel that they can move on with their lives (Radelet & Akers, 1996). This is somewhat related to violent crime, in that there is always the possibility that survivors who have lost loved ones would consider taking their vengeance out on others because of their pain and sorrow, and this could lead to even more violent crimes. Violent criminals that are paroled also run the risk of being killed by those that know what they did and believe that they should have died. This creates more violent acts in society and more problems with how to punish these individuals. Having the death penalty for violent crimes often prevents this.
To summarize, the main point of the argument for the death penalty is that crime will go down because of the fear of punishment. This is the belief of those that advocate the death penalty for all violent crimes, and all of the information to the contrary does not appear to change this opinion.
Argument Against the Death Penalty
There are many different arguments against the death penalty, and some of these come from law enforcement. Recent polls of police chiefs in various areas of the country indicate that a large majority of them believe that the death penalty is no deterrent to violent crime. It ranks last on their lists of how they should go about reducing violent crime, and studies have shown that it is no better at reducing crime than the possibility of life in prison without any chance of parole (Cook, 1999). This is interesting, in the face of the argument that the death penalty reduces the amount of violent crimes that are committed. Studies have also shown that, contrary to the popular opinion that the death penalty brings closure, most people do not feel that watching someone else die helps them to move on in any way (Cassell & Bedau, 2005). Sometimes it seems to profane the name of the lost loved one by associating yet another death with it. The death of the loved one is painful enough without adding to it (Cook, 1999).
Mainly, Opponents of the death penalty argue that (Policy, 2003):
those contemplating criminal activities do not rationally weigh the benefits and costs of their actions,
the costs associated with obtaining a death penalty conviction are larger than the costs associated with providing lifetime imprisonment,
in a world of imperfect information, innocent individuals may be convicted and executed before exonerating information is discovered, and
the death penalty has disproportionately been applied in cases in which the defendant is nonwhite or the victim is white.
There are several effective arguments against the death penalty, including the fact that some people have been executed, and the government has later discovered their innocence. There is not much to be done at that point, and instead of deterring violent crime, it makes the death penalty seem unjust and unfair. It also draws into question once again whether the death penalty is such a good idea, since it can sometimes be used incorrectly and innocent people are made to suffer for the mistakes of the police, prosecutors, and government (Rivkind & Shatz, 2005). It would seem that many criminals would find this more amusing than frightening. They do not take their chances of being caught and subjected to the death penalty seriously enough to be frightened by the penalty like many assume they will be (van den Haag, 2001).
According to some that believe in God and feel that the death penalty is acceptable under the scriptures, make one main point, which is that “This is not an issue that may be measured accurately in terms of statistics. No one can ever know how many potential murderers have refrained from taking human life due to their fear of prosecution, conviction, and ultimate execution” (Jackson, 2003). It is also questioned during this same argument that those who conclude that the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime should also be able to conclude that prison is not a deterrent either, since people seem to keep committing crimes, whether or not they think they will go to jail.
Another concern over the death penalty and violent crime is the issue of the mentally handicapped (Banner, 2003). They, along with juveniles, also commit violent crimes on occasion. These mentally handicapped individuals, not to be confused with mentally disturbed or insane individuals, often have low IQs and do not realize what they have done. The death penalty in their cases is not any deterrent. They do not even realize what they have done. One mentally handicapped man actually asked the jailers to save his dessert for him so that he could eat it after his execution. It was clear that he did not understand what the execution was about, no more than he understood the crime that he had committed. Executing individuals like this does nothing for society. Many people find it cruel, and even if it is not, it is certainly senseless. There are no important lessons about not committing crimes that are learned by executing someone who is mentally handicapped (Reforms, 2002).
The same is true for juvenile offenders. Some juveniles that are convicted of violent crimes are locked away in prison until such time as they are old enough to be executed, which really does not teach juveniles anything valuable about the death penalty or avoidance of violent crime. More often than not, these juveniles are not executed, and most juveniles know that they will not receive the death penalty, even if they are tried as adults, so they are not deterred by the possibility (Radelet & Akers, 1996).
There are other arguments, but the most effective argument against the death penalty as a deterrent for violent crime appears to be the fact that crime has not gone down simply because the death penalty is out there (Death, 2000). States that have it do not have lower crime rates on average than states that do not have it, and that would indicate that the death penalty in and of itself is not stopping people from committing violent acts (Ikramullah, 2003).
Crime, including violent crime, has been with society virtually since the beginning, and it will remain with society until it ends. Nothing will stop some people from committing violent acts, and the death penalty does not appear to be the answer. Sometimes, innocent lives are lost to this process, and many times the families of the victims do not experience the kind of closure that one would hope for simply because the offender has been executed. Since it would appear that even law enforcement does not see the death penalty as an answer to the problems of crime in society, one wonders why it is allowed to continue.
It is possible, however, that the death penalty would be a deterrent if it were used more swiftly and more often. Many people who are sentenced to death spend years in prison appealing their conviction and appealing their sentence, and this is a large waste of taxpayer money, as well as a huge burden on the court system. Those that are guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt often wait a long time for their sentence to be carried out. Even when DNA evidence shows that they were the guilty party, the execution is still not swiftly carried out, and this allows many criminals to find some way to avoid it.
Instead, they end up spending their life in prison, where they get hot meals every day, are allowed to exercise, and have a bed to sleep in every night. They watch TV and read books, and this is more than many of the hungry and homeless in today’s society get. Criminals are treated better than many of these people. The criminals have lost their freedom, but they get a lot of things in return for that, and society is required to pay for them through taxes and other avenues that fund the prisons.
One is left to wonder why this is so, and whether the death penalty actually would work if everyone found guilty of a violent crime and proved guilty with DNA evidence and/or a confession was executed within 30 days. There would be less prison overcrowding, and appeals would not be allowed. Enacted in this way, the death penalty might be a better deterrent against violent crime, because the stakes would be much higher than they are now, and the chances of being executed would be much greater. It would give criminals more to think about when they were contemplating their violent crimes, and society (at least that part of society that supports the death penalty) would feel better about not supporting these criminals while they appealed and worked to save themselves.
It is also possible that more people would come to see the death penalty as a good idea if they could be shown that there was less prison overcrowding and that the amount of violent crime was actually dropping because of it. This might help society out in several ways, but it is unlikely that this will come to pass. There are always those that will fight for the rights of convicted prisoners, and argue that they are misunderstood.
There are also those that will maintain the opinion that killing is wrong, no matter who does it. Every individual is certainly entitled to their opinion, and it would appear that those who feel the death penalty is wrong are winning their battle, at least in some states, because executions do not take place very often. Even when they do occur, it is usually after a lengthy appeals process lasting many years and costing much money.
Since society will never be free of crime, dealing with that crime and controlling it has become the focus of law enforcement. If the death penalty can be improved and made to work, it should remain. If it cannot be changed so that it actually deters violent crimes, than perhaps it should be done away with in favor of a system that will actually lower the crime rate and work to prevent violent crimes in the future.