To understand the Death Penalty and how it became, we need to first understand the history and the meaning of the term called “Death Penalty”. The Death Penalty is also known as “Capital Punishment”. It can be explained as the legal or official killing of a person by the state or government as a punishment for serious criminal misconduct (Seiter, Corrections: An Introduction, 2011, p.473). The topic of Capital Punishment or the Death Penalty has been a major issue for years dating back to the olden days. Many people argue that this type of punishment is unacceptable while others argue that it is not unusual punishment and if someone can kill another human being without remorse then that person should be put to death as well. Many states set a standard in which the Death Penalty is allowed for and which crime the person has committed to get the Death Penalty. During this paper we will learn about the history and the Pros and Cons of the Death Penalty. We will also see why it works or doesn’t work and why people are for and against it. It is my belief that the Death Penalty should be for people who commit harsh crimes and kill other people.
The death penalty is a form of punishment that has been there even before Christ and has been administered by many civilized societies on wrong doers for various offences; however the first ever documented capital punishment case was that of George Kendall, in Virginia. He was a Spanish spy who was convicted in 1608. From then till present, around 20,000 people (documented figure only) have been given death penalties by various courts of laws. (Acker, 2003).
When the concept of state prisons was absent, fines and capital punishment were used as a means to discourage crimes and offences. The punishment was normally meted out in public so as to make an example out of it. The European law was stricter and had some 200 offences punishable by death penalty as compared to the American law in the early periods of colonization. The American law had major crimes such as murder, rape, adultery, sodomy, etc. that could result in capital punishment. Another reason for the public show of the punishment in the early years was the simple method of hanging used for the punishment which in later years was replaced by more sophisticated techniques like electric chairs and gas chambers so as to reduce the suffering of the offender. Thus with new techniques and increasing public sensitivities towards such punishments the public display was halted in the mid-19th century. (Acker, 2003)
The 18th century also saw some changes in people’s opinion regarding the punishment and they began opposing it. Thus with time the crimes for which death penalty could be ordered were reduced and included just serious offences. The European Enlightenment era saw further criticism and the western nations started abandoning the practice with United States as the only exception. Even US law had the punishment abolished for certain period (1973-1977) but it was again legalized for certain crimes and situations (Acker, 2003).
Why such serious crimes are committed?
There are various reasons for which people commit crimes which are punishable with death. Offenders usually choose to commit such a big crime mainly due to revenge, grudge and greed of property. Research also reveals that murders are usually done by family members, relatives, friends, or by some known person. This may be because that person wants to take revenge from his relative/friend or is interested in his wealth etc. Moreover, as friends and relatives are mostly aware of the schedule of the person so it is easy for them to target the person (Ehrlich, 1975).
Other than revenge, unemployment and poverty also result in serious crimes such as murder. The murder rate is directly proportional to the rate of unemployment and inversely proportional to the labor force participation rate (Ehrlich, 1975).
Moreover, murders are also done for benefits provided i.e. some form of incentive is given to criminals to perform this act so as to prevent direct involvement of the person in the crime. The research also gives the result that culprits usually respond to such benefits and they also acknowledge the benefits provided to them for committing the crime (Ehrlich, 1975).
Argument For and Against
The argument for and against death penalty has continued from time to time and different point of views have emerged. During past 60 years several surveys have been carried out to find the support for capital punishment and in 2001 the polling showed 65% support. Surveys were also carried out to see who highly supports death penalty and it was found that white people support more than black people, males support more than females and old Americans support more than younger Americans. Moreover different opinions were also found among groups belonging to different religions and different political affiliations for capital punishment (G.Lambert, Alan, & Lambert, 2004).
The death penalty is a critical punishment therefore there is need of more survey that why people are for or against this punishment. There are four general views for punishment; rehabilitation, retribution, deterrence, and incapacitation (G.Lambert, Alan, & Lambert, 2004).
The ideologies which are in favour of capital punishment are retribution, deterrence and incapacitation. Proponents of deterrence belief that by making punishment harsher crime can be stopped as people would think about the likely consequences of the crime (G.Lambert, Alan, & Lambert, 2004). In retribution there is a belief that criminal should be punished according to the crime he had done, for example if he kills someone than his life should be taken that’s why this ideology supports capital punishment. It means this school of thought supports the eye for an eye ideology saying that mercy shouldn’t be shown towards the criminals as they haven’t shown mercy towards the victim when killing him and in future also mercy can’t be expected from the, and they are therefore dangerous for the society (G.Lambert, Alan, & Lambert, 2004).
Incapacitation is an ideology which focuses on how to control the criminal to stop them from committing the crime again in the future; it can be done in many ways such as house arrest, supervision or imprisonment. Therefore it justifies the support for death penalty. Surveys have shown that people mostly support capital punishment because they are afraid that they themselves or their relatives can also be affected by the crime. Due to this reason they support the viewpoint that there should be severe punishment for such crimes so that it can reduce the crime rate (G.Lambert, Alan, & Lambert, 2004).
The other side of the argument says that death penalty is not the right solution to the problem. They resist death penalty because according to them there is no surety about the accuracy of justice provided. If someone who is not the actual murderer is sentenced to death on basis of some forged proof for example than it would be really unfair because death is such a punishment which is irreversible and the loss of life cannot be recovered (Ehrlich, 1975).
Moreover people also argue that capital punishment is uncivilized and immoral as it is a really cruel punishment and the criminals should instead be provided with the option of rehabilitation i.e. to keep them under a specific environment and try to reform them by trying to work on their physical, moral and mental issues. Although not all criminals can be reformed but some of them can be so this is actually a risky option as those who are not reformed and return to the society without punishment can be dangerous for the society (G.Lambert, Alan, & Lambert, 2004).
Pros and Cons
After analyzing the arguments that have been given by the proponents and opponents of death penalty we can now categorize the pros and cons of capital punishment.
The major benefit of death penalty in earlier times when state prisons did not exist was that it allowed serious offenders to be punished in a way that the offence was not repeated. The public display also played the same role of discouraging serious crimes such as murder and rape. Even today murder of an innocent life is considered a heinous crime and in many people’s opinion the murderer should be dealt with. Justice also says that a person who kills should himself meet similar fate and be physically removed from the society in order to protect innocent lives. Rehabilitation and reentering of such criminals into the society might risk further loss of lives and thus death penalty is a way of ensuring that the act does not repeat (Vollum, Longmire, & Vollum, 2004).
Secondly death penalty also to some extent alleviates the grievances of the friends and relatives of the victim. It would mentally hurt a person if he knows that the person who killed his relative is still alive and thus death of the offender would provide him some relief from the loss. This should not be confused with revenge; rather this is ‘retribution’ – where the person who injures is inflicted similar injury to maintain just order and public good (LAMBERT, CLARKE, & LAMBERT, 2004) .
The disadvantages of death penalty outnumber the limited advantages that are mostly based on emotional appeal. In the 18th century when the state prisons were introduced, the people started to object to capital punishment mainly due to the barbaric nature of killing a person. It is said by many researchers that death penalty does not deter murder and other serious offences. It rather legitimizes taking of life as it is seen by the public as something that is lawful carried out by the state courts. Such an act makes the value of life less dear. It is believed that with the introduction of state prisons, imprisoning the offender for life is a better alternative of curbing serious offences rather than punishing with death. For general deterrence making the state of life of the prisoner miserable can be enough to discourage people from committing crimes (Ehrlich, 1975).
Also the cost of life imprisonment is far less than what a state incurs while charging someone with death penalty. Capital punishment cases if executed will lead to subsequent appeals, resulting in additional costs for all parties involved. Also the loss of life is an economic cost in the sense of lost opportunity. If the offender is imprisoned and rehabilitated, there is a possibility that he might repent and try to rectify what he did by doing some good to the society. Thus the cost of capital punishment is estimated at around 3 times more than imprisoning the ill doer for his remaining expected life (around 40 years) and it is the tax payers who have to bear these additional charges. The additional appeals also tend to unnecessarily clog the court system which can use its time better by focusing on other pending cases (Savon, 2005). Another disadvantage is that sometimes innocent people get convicted as even jury decisions sometimes are prone to error due to lack of evidence, false witnesses or other scientific reasons such as inaccurate DNA samples, etc. Had they been imprisoned, there would be a possibility of their release after proving their innocence. However, in cases of capital punishment, it often happens that the accused is convicted and the evidence of his innocence materializes afterwards resulting in a loss of life that could have been saved. This happens more to the poor and less influential people who are unable to pay for good lawyers for their defense and are proven guilty by the celebrated lawyers representing the more powerful and rich parties. Once convicted the poor accused is even unable to lodge an appeal against the decision due to lack of resources. There have also been some instances where mentally unstable people have been punished with death. These people are not in control of their actions and thus it can be said that their acts may not be deliberate. Thus in order to avoid such convictions of unstable people imprisonment is again a better alternative than death penalty as it would allow identification of mentally ill people and thus a possibility to give them special care and rehabilitate them to bring them back to society if possible. (Vollum, Longmire & Vollum, 2004)
Racial discrimination has also been evident in the cases of capital punishment where in the past minorities, e.g. black people and slaves have been convicted far out of proportion of their population. In historic cases, it is evident that the whites were often saved from such harsh punishments and the jury itself avoided giving verdict against them whereas in case of blacks, the jury was less forgiving and therefore more convictions were meted out to them. According to a source, ‘out of the 771 people executed for rape between 1870 and 1950, 701 were black’ (Acker, 2003).
Does it really work?
Whether or not capital punishment really works and deters crime has been a question that is largely unanswered but some researchers have tried to find the answer to this question.
One research by Isaac Ehrlich has been developed that there is no deterrent effect of capital punishment as it is proved by correlation observed between death penalty and murder rate in a survey carried out in few states (Ehrlich, 1975).
On the other hand, few other studies carried out recently suggest that death penalty deters future crime as every 1 criminal put to death due to some serious crime prevents about 3 to 18 other people from committing such serious crimes. As these studies have been carried out mostly by economists, so they have been criticized by the legal scholar who say that the theories of economics don’t apply in the world of crime and the methodology used for such studies is flawed. Therefore, the question whether capital punishment is really effective or not is still unanswered (G.Lambert, Alan, & Lambert, 2004).
After going through various arguments for and against capital punishment and analyzing its pros and cons, it can be concluded that death penalty should only be given in cases where it is extremely sure that a person has committed the crime and there is no doubt in the evidences. Other than that death penalty should be replaced with life imprisonment without parole because it is possible that there is mistake in dealing with the case and innocent person is sentenced to death which is irreversible. Moreover, crimes which are committed when a person is a young mentally unstable shouldn’t be punishable with death. Last but not the least it would also reduce the overall cost of government in dealing with such cases.
Acker, J. R. (2003). The Death Penalty: An American History. Contemporary Justice Review, 169-186.
Ehrlich, I. (1975). The Deterrent Effect Of Capital Punishment: A Question Of Life And Death. The American Economic Review, 397-417.
Ehrlich, I. (1975). The Deterrent Effect Of Capital Punishment: A Question Of Life And Death. The American Economic Review, 397-417.
G.Lambert, E., A. C., & Lambert, J. (2004). Reasons For Supporting And Opposing Capital Punishment In The Usa: A Preliminary Study. Internet Journal Of Criminology (Ijc).
Lambert, E. G., Clarke, A., & Lambert, J. (2004). Reasons For Supporting And Opposing Capital Punishment In The Usa: A Preliminary Study. Internet Journal Of Criminology, 1-34.
Savon, A. A. (2005). The Effect Of Knowledge Gain On Capital Punishment: A Partial Test Of The Marshall Hypothesis. Graduate School Theses And Dissertations, 1-42.
Vollum, S., Longmire, D. R., & Vollum, J. B. (2004). Confidence In The Death Penalty And Support For Its Use: Exploring The Value-Expressive Dimension Of Death Penalty Attitudes. Justice Quarterly, 521-546.