Capital punishment, or death penalty, is one of the oldest forms of punishment. It is also the most controversial. Many people are confused as to what type of punishment is the best punishment for those who committed a heinous crime. Many people opt for the death penalty because they say it deters crime since it makes criminals scared to do crimes. However, there are statistics that prove that death penalty is not that effective in preventing crime, which basically renders the whole thing pointless.
The people who opt for having death penalty are those who often had a brush with heinous crime. They are often in it for revenge as they had been victims at one point or another. They believe that death penalty is a good way of preventing future crimes as they kill a killer. Is this decision sound?
Firstly, we should ask why people engage in deviant acts, and in this case, criminal activities. Many people, as well as researchers think it’s a personal choice: you have an option if you want to do something. This is rooted on the theory of rational choice in sociology, which is derived from Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham’s theories. The theory states that the man is a rational being, rationality involves a calculation (usually ends/means calculation), people choose their own behavior, whether the behavior is deviant of conformist based on their calculations, these calculations usually involve a cost-benefit analysis with regards to their behavior, and this choice of behavior is usually geared towards maximizing the feelings of pleasure (versus pain), and this perception can only be controlled by manipulating their understanding of pain (punishment). This is where the government comes in, as they usually are the ones responsible for maintaining social order by means of having laws, which is also a social contract that they have to fulfill. In order to make punishments effective, the government looks at the swiftness, severity and certainty of the punishment.
According to this theory, the criminal usually commits crimes knowingly, after they weighed the pros and cons of the crime that they are going to commit. They analyze everything, from the risk of being apprehended, the degree of the punishment, and his need for the gains that he would commit as a criminal.
Because of this, we can assume that crime prevention can be successful by letting the criminals, or even the potential criminals, by letting them perceive really heavy punishment, like death penalty. These criminals will have to be convinced that punishments can be quite threatening. Thus, the government imposes legal deterrents such as mandatory sentencing and capital punishment.
Capital punishment as a legal deterrent goes back a long way. From the time of the Vikings, the Roman Republic, the French Revolution, World War II and up to this time. However, the most famous ancient death penalty laws were probably made in Ancient Greece, where the Athenian legal system was penned by Draco, and it included capital punishment for a wide range of crimes, even petty theft.
The question is, does it deter crime effectively as it should be? There are a lot of studies dedicated to finding out about the relationship between crime rates and death penalty. Currently, there are only sixteen states (US) without the death penalty. Texas is the leading state which has a lot of executions. It has also one of the highest crime rates.
There are a lot of studies that show that death penalty does not have any deterrent effect on crime rate. This means that even if you do not have capital punishment in your state, the crimes would still continue, making capital punishment theoretically useless, in terms of deterring crime, which was its original purpose – to let criminals perceive that capital punishment would be a heavy enough punishment such that the crime they commit would not be worth it.
There is also evidence that the states with capital punishment are the ones that have higher crime rates. One can have capital punishment in one’s state but still have a lot of crimes. Thus, having capital punishment is not a guarantee that one can enjoy a crime-free community. There are even states that have had increased crimes even if they had capital punishment in their local laws. Although there are states that have had a decrease in their crime rates, it is not conclusive that they have had lesser crime rates because of death penalty. Even experts agree that there is no relationship between the death penalty and the crime rate. Take Texas, for example, it has the most number of executions since 1976 with 476 cases, but it is also one of the most high-crime states. Even the cops consider death penalty as the least effective way of preventing crime. They said that the major causes of crimes are the lack of law enforcement resources and drug/alcohol abuse. Insufficient use of death penalty is the last on the list. In fact, the number of homicides in the US has remained the same ever since capital punishment has been enacted in 1976.
Going back to rational choice theory, one can assume that these criminals aren’t at all innocent because they weighed the pros and cons of their crimes first. They are guilty ever since they ever thought of doing the crime. However, one should also think that these convicts may not be the real people who really thought of the crimes, especially those convicted of violent crimes by virtue of having eye-witness accounts. There are studies that show that most eye-witnesses have a hard time recollecting the details of a crime, especially if it is violent. There are more chances of convicting a innocent because of these eye-witness accounts due to false memories.
So even if we know that the perpetrator is guilty, the real person who committed the crime would remain to be a puzzle, even if there is an eye-witness account because it may be a cause of mistaken identity. Is it good to imprison an innocent? Is it good to put capital punishment on someone innocent?
Because of these, the public also has a different takes regarding death penalty. Death penalty is not quite popular to the public as well. Most people prefer life sentence without parole. Is this related to their culture or religion, with their beliefs? Maybe, because the way the experts group the statistics is based on the places the crimes have originated (South, Midwest, East, etc) We do not know, though if it’s really cultural, but there are enough evidence that the public prefers other types of punishment for the criminals.
The deterrent factor of the death penalty probably lies on the fact that once you kill a criminal, then his crimes would stop. It’s on the individual level. That would have been plausible if a community only had one criminal. However, in the real world, even if one kills a criminal, there are tens and thousands of others who would replicate that act. That is not quite effective as a solution to crimes.
However, it’s not a secret that there are more states that push death penalty than those who oppose it. But there are states who also want to cancel their support for the death penalty because of its inefficacy. One might ask, why did they agree to have death penalty anyway? Maybe this is due to the sociological theory called the consensus approach. The consensus approach basically states that the society upholds its morals according to its beliefs of right and wrong.
Values change. It is dynamic. What’s morally right in 1976 (when the death penalty was enacted in United States) can be immoral now. So it’s perfectly understandable if there are some states that would opt to cancel their support for the death penalty. Then again, this approach (the consensus approach) is quite weak, as it is dependent of current trends in terms of values and morals. It is very uncertain and can be quite confusing as it is quite populist in nature.
In figuring out if death penalty is appropriate or not, one should look into the conflict perspective. This perspective states the conflict is a part of life and it can never be solved. In order to control the society, those in power could only coerce the disenfranchised to the rules given by those in power. Thus, social order is derived from the assertion that is made by those who enact on the law, and those who assert the law. This theory is much more plausible as the society is made up of people coming from diverse backgrounds, with different cultures. These groups of people have their own interpretations of right and wrong, and one can get into conflict by misinterpreting certain actions. Laws are there to maintain the status-quo, and protect the interests of those who made them.
The death penalty is such an ambiguous issue. One’s opinion about it reflects one’s values. However, looking at the conflict perspective, one can actually say that even without death penalty, crimes and conflicts would still ensue. It will never end. What works, even up to now, is law enforcement. However, the lack of resources is proving to be too taxing for the law enforcers since they couldn’t do their job well. Another reason why the crime rates are up is the drug abuse. The real issue here is not about taking lives, per se, but protecting people from the evils of other people. The death penalty exists in order for the majority of people to live without having to fear for their lives. If the root of the problem still exists, then the problem would never end. Since many experts have agreed that the death penalty is not a deterrent, and is not significant in contributing about the prevention of crime, it is useless. It may have a small effect, but that’s it. There are more ways of punishing criminals than opting to kill. Solving a problem with death penalty is akin to solving a headache by decapitation.
Fact Sheet. Deathpenaltyinfo.org. Web, 2011. Retrieved: November 14, 2011
Devienne, Elsa. Comparing Exceptionalism in France and the USA. European Journal of American Studies. 2010. Web. Retrieved, November 14, 2011.
Radelet, Michael and Akers, Ronald. Deterrence and Death Penalty: The Views of the Experts. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 1996. Web. Retrieved. November 14, 2011.
Schmalleger, Frank. Criminology Today (3rd ed). New York: Prentice Hall. Print, 2001.