The use of death penalty or capital punishment is one of the most controversial issues in Social Science studies. Scholars in social sciences are divided on whether or not the use of death penalty as a mean of punishing offenders is justifiable. One group of the scholars contend that death penalty is the most effective form of punishment for the criminals who have committed heinous crimes like murder and robbery with violence (Macdonald, 88). The other group of scholars, on the other hand, argue that death penalty is not an effective method of punishing the offenders and that the punishment does not lead to the intended objectives. A review of these arguments in favour of and against death penalty shows that death penalty is, indeed, an efficacious mean of punishing criminals guilty of serious and heinous crimes. This paper, therefore, evaluates the debates in favour of and against capital punishment and presents a coherent and logical debate in favour of death punishment. In the presentation of the arguments in favour of death penalty, Stephen Toulmin’s model of argumentation is applied (Stephen Toulmin, online). The application of the Toulmin’s model of argumentation helps in presenting the arguments in a coherent and logical manner.
There are three main arguments in support of death penalty as an effective mean of punishing the offenders who are guilty of crimes of high magnitude. The first argument is based on the claim that death penalty deters crime. Death penalty as a deterrent mean to further commission of crime is one of the main reasons why death penalty is practiced in many jurisdictions. As a mean of punishing the criminals for their offences, death penalty deters further commission of crime in two ways.
In the first way, by killing the offenders of crimes of high magnitude, for instance a murderer, the murderer will have no further opportunity to commit the crime again (Maulsby, 28). This in effect means that the crimes of murder will drastically reduce in that particular area. Although there are some studies that tend to refute this fact, there are, however numerous studies that corroborate this fact. For instance in the study by Erhlich, carried out in USA in an attempt to find out whether, really, capital punishments lead to reduction in crime rate, it was found that, there is, indeed, a strong correlation between death penalty and the rate of crimes, especially crimes of high magnitude like murder ( Arguments for and against Death Penalty, online). The study showed a significant reduction in crime, in places where death penalty is practiced as compared to other places where different means of punishing such criminals is practiced. But, apart from the studies that tend to support the view that death penalty can lead to reduction in crime, it is also, a matter of common sense that, when the people who are committing crimes are abolished or killed, then the rate of crimes will significantly reduce because they will not have another opportunity to commit the crimes.
The second reason why death penalty leads to reduction in crime is due to the fact that by killing the offenders of serious crimes, other people with the intent to kill will be afraid of doing so for fear of the consequences that would befall them(Goel, 2008). People, naturally, fear severe punishments, especially death, and so, when the law prescribes death penalty for serious crimes, then many people, utterly out of fear for the death, will refrain from committing such crimes. Although there are some studies contradicting this fact, arguing that death penalty does not deter criminals from committing crimes( Arguments for and Against Death Penalty, online) there are contrary studies supporting the view that death penalty instils fear among the criminals and, therefore, prevents them from committing crimes. But it is a fact that some people commit crimes due to psychological problems and for these kinds of people, death penalty cannot prevent them from committing crimes because, they commit crimes out of uncontrollable strong psychological impulse. But it is not true that all people who commit crimes do so out of psychological disorder. This therefore shows that use of death penalty as a mean of punishing the criminals can lead to reduction of crimes.
The third reason why death penalty can act as a deterrent, is due to the fact by killing criminals, you break the chain of crimes. It is a fact that some criminals have organised themselves into an elaborate network and that operates from a central command point. These groups of organised criminals also do recruitments for new members. In order to effectively dismantle such criminal organisations, it is necessary to eliminate, through killing, the think tanks and the commanders of such criminal gangs. By dismantling such organised criminals, through killing, you will have broken the chain of crimes and by that; the killing of the criminals will have deterred more crimes from being committed.
Apart from deterrence, the second ground on which death penalty can be justified is on the retribution ground. The proponents of this position hold that criminals deserve to be punished because they deserve punishment. By committing crimes, retribution theory of justice holds, the criminals are inviting upon themselves punishment that is proportionate to the crime that they commit (Bowers, 4). Punishing the criminals therefore on this ground is justifiable since it is giving the offenders their just and fair deserts. On this ground, therefore, death penalty is a just and fair to the criminals who have committed serious crimes like murder or robbery with violence. There are two reasons to support this position.
First, when criminals commit felony (Serious crimes like murder), they do so freely without compulsion from anybody, otherwise the criminals wouldn’t be held culpable for their actions. This means that the person is free either to commit the offence or not to commit it. Secondly, for the criminal to be regarded as responsible for their actions, the criminal must be mentally sound, they shouldn’t be insane. This means that the criminal knew very well of the consequences of their actions, including the consequence of them being punished for their crimes. But the punishments that they should be subjected to should be proportionate to the magnitude of the crimes that they commit, the higher the crime in magnitude the higher the punishment.
The above facts mean that by choosing to commit crime, the criminals have freely, without compulsion and with full knowledge of the consequences, chosen to commit crime, and therefore this means that they have freely chosen to be punished for their crimes. And with death penalty being the most severe form of punishment that one can be subjected to, the offenders who commit serious crimes that threaten or take away the lives of other people should be killed. For example, a serial murderer should be killed because by killing other people deliberately, they should also be killed because by killing other people, they are wishing, as it were, to be also killed. This is the only punishment that befits this kind of crimes. While some people would argue that life imprisonment without any possibility of parole is the harshest type of punishment compared with death penalty, death penalty is the punishment that is proportionate to the punishment of taking away another person’s life. Also, death punishment is the most feared form of punishment and this shows that it is, indeed, the most severe and the most effective form of punishment for the offenders of serious crimes.
This position that criminals commit crime deliberately and with full knowledge of the consequences for their crimes is severely criticized by the people who oppose death penalty as a form of punishment for the offenders guilty of serious crimes. In their arguments, they contend that it is not true that people who commit crimes do so willingly, and by so doing, they wish upon themselves the bad consequences of their actions (crimes) to befall them. This group or scholars, who mainly understand crime as having originated from the society, or as being some form of psychological disorder, argue that criminals do not cause crime willingly and intentionally. And for this reason, they contend that the primary reason for punishing criminals should be to reform them but not to punish them for the sake of their actions. This group of scholars, therefore, are greatly opposed to the use of death penalty as a form of punishment for the criminals who commit crimes of highest magnitude.
But a critical look at this position that criminals should not be punished because of their crimes shows that the position is wrong and misleading. The only group of people who can be claimed to commit crimes unintentionally and without knowledge of the consequences for their actions are the mentally incapacitated criminals. But in all the jurisdictions of the world, this concern has been taken care of by the principle of mens rea (The Intention to commit a wrongful act, online). But for the mentally sound criminals, who commit crime without any form of compulsion, they should account for their crimes and they should be punished for the crimes. This will help in making people responsible and will rid the society of the criminals.
The second reason to support death penalty on retribution ground is that death penalty restores the moral balance that has been disturbed by the felonious crimes (Burleigh, chapter 1). All crimes bring about a certain moral imbalance, and this therefore calls for a restoration of the disturbed moral balance. This can be achieved through appropriate punishment that is proportionate to the crime committed. And for this reason, some severe crimes like murder, which is actually the severest form of crime, requires the most severe form of punishment. And since death penalty is the most dreaded form of punishment, death penalty is the most severe form of punishment. Death penalty, therefore, is an effective form of punishment for the serious crimes. Unless this form of punishment is administered for the serious crimes that threaten other human beings life, the moral imbalance that is brought about by crimes of this sort will remain uncorrected. For instance, when a terrorist kills innocent people for religious or any other reason, moral balance is affected by the injustice that the terrorist has done to the innocent people. To counter or to assuage this injustice, the terrorist also must be killed. And by the killing of the terrorist, moral balance that had been offset by the terrorist’s offences will be restored. Death penalty, therefore, is a necessary and just form of punishment.
The main criticism that is directed against this position is that death penalty does not serve any good purpose, since it does neither lead to the reform of the criminal nor does it give back /pay back to the offended what the offender had deprived of them ( Bedau, online). For this reason, the anti-death penalty proponents contend that death penalty is an ineffective form of punishment, and that it does not lead to the restoration of the moral balance that had been offset by the criminal acts. There are scholars who contend that death penalty, actually, leads to increase in crime in the society (Ross, 626). The view that death penalty brings about restoration of the moral balance is also criticised on the ground that, it is very difficult to determine exactly the kind of punishment that would be proportionate to the crime committed. Owing to this fact, the anti-death penalty proponents argue that death penalty doesn’t in any way bring about restoration of justice. It is also claimed that due to human errors and inability to do thorough investigations and to know exactly whether a person is guilty for an offence of high magnitude or not, some innocent people have been executed and for this reason, death penalty in such a case doesn’t bring about any restoration of justice. Hence, it is argued that death penalty should be abolished.
But, although, as a matter of fact it is quite difficult to determine precisely the exact amount of punishment that would match the crime committed and thus restore the moral balance that has been offset by the crime, we can, however, approximate the amount of punishment that would be proportionate to the crime committed. And in some instances like in the case of murder, it is possible to determine the exact amount of punishment that would be proportionate to the crime committed. In the case of murder, the murderer is also executed just as they murdered other people. And this, of course, will bring about the restoration of justice. And on the claim that death penalty is a useless form of punishment because it doesn’t bring about reformation of the criminal or restoration of justice, I would respond that the purpose of punishment is not merely to bring about reformation of the criminal. While indeed the restoration of the offender is one of the main objectives of punishing criminals, it is, however, not the only aim of punishing the offenders. And for this reason, death penalty shouldn’t be discarded only because it does not bring about reformation of the offender. Death penalty, therefore, should be practiced for it brings about restoration of justice, although, sometimes it is hard to determine with exactness the correct form or amount of punishment that would be proportionate to the crime committed. On human error and execution of innocent people, thorough investigations should be done, and there should be enough evidence, beyond reasonable doubt, before holding a person culpable of a crime deserving death penalty as its punishment.
The third reason why death penalty should be practiced is that it brings about closure and vindication for the offender’s family. Once a member of a family commits a crime, all the other members of the family feel psychologically disturbed by the misconduct of one of their member, this psychological torture continues till when the whole issue is brought to a closure. But some form of punishments takes a very long time before the issue is brought to a closure. For instance in life imprisonment, the offender is imprisoned for life, and the offender undergoes sufferings throughout their lives. This kind of punishment haunts the members of the offender family till when the offender dies. But with death penalty, the whole matter is brought to closer when the offender is executed. The family, although, will be greatly affected psychologically by the execution of one of their member, the psychological torture, however, will last for a short time as compared to the lifelong torture that they would have to undergo in case of life imprisonment. This therefore shows that in terms of saving the other members of the family from the embarrassment and the psychological torture that goes with one of their member being prosecuted and punished for their wrong doing, death penalty is far better than life imprisonment for in death penalty the whole matter is brought to closure within a very short time.
One of the obvious criticism that would be levelled against this point is that death penalty brings about far more psychological torture and shame to the members of the executed person’s family, as compared to the life imprisonment. Critics would contend that execution of an offender brings about a permanent shame and psychological torture to the members of the offender’s family, as compared to life imprisonment of one of their family member.
A critical look at these two opposing positions shows that in terms of bringing vindication and closer of the whole matter to the family members of the offender, death penalty is far better as compared to life imprisonment. While it is true that death penalty will lead to an awful psychological torture to the family members of the offender, the executed criminal, the psychological torture will, nonetheless, not be life long as the critics of death penalty would argue, but it will wane away after some time. But in case of life imprisonment, the shame and the psychological torture for a having one member of a family in prison throughout their lives, will be a lifelong experience. This is because the memory and the futile hope that somehow one day in future their imprisoned family member will be set free, keeps torturing them throughout their lives. And for this reason, death penalty should be practiced for it brings abound vindication and closer of the matter to the members of the offender’s family.
In conclusion, we can say that, despite the fact that death penalty has a number of short comings, its advantages, however, far outweighs its disadvantages. Death penalty helps to maintain law and order in the society by serving as a lesson and instilling fear upon the potential criminals. Death penalty also restores the moral balance that has been offset by the commission of crime. Lastly, death penalty brings about closure and vindication to the family members of the offender. And in the light of these far reaching advantages, death penalty should be practiced as an effective mean of punishing the offenders who are guilty of serious crimes.
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