“An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind.” Mohandas Gandhi
I know, I would normally be pretty skeptical about anything that starts with a Gandhi quote, but it’s a good one, and it’s apropos. In the past few weeks there has been a lot of talk about the death penalty. It was cheered during a Republican presidential debate, and as this is being written there is fierce last minute effort being made for clemency in the case of Troy Davis. (http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/cases/usa-troy-davis) The death penalty has always seemed to me to be one of those things that people in the future will look back on and say, “I can’t believe they actually did that.” It always felt strange to me that the integration battles in the south were being fought while my parents were in school. I hope my kids will think it’s odd that I grew up and lived with the death penalty.
I grew up in a state that does not have the death penalty (http://filipspagnoli.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/death-penalty-map-united-states.png), and I’m proud of that. Iowa is one of the safest states in America. “Iowa is safe because it doesn’t have the death penalty” is the kind of anecdotal statement that gets thrown around in debates, but confuses correlation with causation. I personally find the death penalty disgusting and immoral, but I would prefer to condemn it with rational argument. Outside of nonsense assertions I have never heard a real and compelling argument for the death penalty. Let’s examine some of the more common arguments for the death penalty.
What follows is a list of common pro death penalty arguments from http://www.balancedpolitics.org/death_penalty.htm
- The death penalty gives closure to the victim’s families who have suffered so much.
- It creates another form of crime deterrent.
- Justice is better served.
- Our justice system shows more sympathy for criminals than it does victims.
- It provides a deterrent for prisoners already serving a life sentence.
- DNA testing and other methods of modern crime scene science can now effectively eliminate almost all uncertainty as to a person’s guilt or innocence.
- Prisoner parole or escapes can give criminals another chance to kill.
- It contributes to the problem of overpopulation in the prison system.
- It gives prosecutors another bargaining chip in the plea bargain process, which is essential in cutting costs in an overcrowded court system.
Numbers 1, 3 and 4 are all not rational arguments. Numbers 2 and 5 are versions of the same argument. The qualifier “effectively” in number 6 eliminates it a serious argument.
“It’s a deterrent”
One of the logical arguments for the death penalty is that it provides a harsh punishment that will keep potential criminals from committing crimes that would demand it’s use. If you think about it this seems to make sense. If you think about it a bit more you start to question the logic. Is someone that is going to kill someone else really considering the consequences of that action. Probably not, but who knows? Further more does it make sense that state approved killing legitimizes killing as a way to solve problems or exact justice? Murderers probably don’t think about that, at least consciously, just as much as they don’t think about the consequences of murder. The fact is that the relationship between the death penalty and violent crime rates is nearly impossible to prove one way or the other. Most of the evidence suggests that the death penalty is not a deterrent, and for my money if you are going to execute someone you better have some very solid evidence that it is helping to deter future violent crime.
The death penalty provides a deterrent to violent criminals already in prison.
As everyone with access to a TV or movie theater can tell you that prison is a dangerous place. Is it possible that the threat of the death penalty could deter prisoner murder? f the case for the death penalty as a deterrent in the outside world is shaky, why would it be less so in prisons? It wouldn’t. This is the same argument. Also, why do people who think we are too lenient with violent offenders care about the safety of those offenders in prison? I
The death penalty ensures that murders and violent criminals will never kill again.
That is very true. Unless you’re Freddy Krueger you are probably not going to kill once you are dead. If you are in prison for life you are almost as unlikely to kill someone again. It’s possible that you might kill another prisoner, or escape and kill again. The fact is that in our legal system it takes a long time to execute someone. It should because if you are going to execute someone you should be very very sure they are guilty. During the time that person is imprisoned they are just as capable of escaping or killing a fellow prisoner. I’m writing this quickly and don’t have the time to research properly, but we are dealing with very small numbers here and there isn’t a lot of data out there. I’m sure that there are cases of convicted murders murdering in prison or escaping prison and killing again in the outside world. Aren’t these problems with our prison system? I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests that the death penalty would have prevented murders in prison or murders committed by escaped convicts.
A related argument is that the death penalty decreases the prison population. Again, with the legal steps required to execute someone the numbers are so small when compared to the total prison population that they are almost totally insignificant. If you want to address the problem of overcrowding in prisons you probably want to question the imprisonment rates for non-violent criminals.
It gives prosecutors an important tool to convince capital defendants to plead guilty, or testify against a fellow defendant.
This makes more sense than any of the other arguments. Although unlikely, potential problems with this argument are that it could lead to poor information and/or false confessions that come under enormous pressure. The fact is that the threat of death does not lead to more guilty pleas.
The death penalty threat can, and does, lead to more plea bargains. This can ease the burden on the justice system, but does it outweigh the burden of the death penalty cases that do go to trial? The death penalty is much more expensive than life in prison, and it requires much more of the courts. The problem with using the death penalty as a threat is that it can’t be an empty threat. You have to execute people, and that is expensive and time consuming. If you aren’t going to get anymore guilty convictions by using the death penalty as a threat and the net effect on the justice system in negligible or negative then why bother using it at all?
People that are pro abortion and anti death penalty are hypocrites. (This isn’t really a “rational” argument for the death penalty, it’s more of an argument against the logic of anti death penalty people)
First of all I think there are few people that are “pro abortion.” Secondly, a potential life is not a life. I am not pro abortion, but I am against making it illegal because the reality of the situation is that when abortion is illegal some people that are actually living make bad choices that lead to real problems and even deaths. If a fetus, or potential life, is a “life” then where do we stop. Will it be illegal for men with strong sperm to masturbate? What about birth control? Should that be illegal too? It does rob of us potential lives. Isn’t the bigger hypocrisy to be “pro life” and “pro death penalty?” If you are concerned with lowering crime rates and easing the stress on our justice system then you should want to keep abortion legal because there is a real causal relationship between abortion and crime rates. The horrible and harsh truth is that abortion keeps unwanted kids that are likely to become criminals from ever being born.
That’s it. Those are the rational arguments for the death penalty. What we are left with are the irrational reasons- the punishment should fit the crime, it makes the victim’s family feel better and get closure, and we are too easy on criminals. These kind of arguments are exactly why we have a justice system to begin with. This is the kind of passionate thinking that lead to violence on our streets. If we kill for revenge or “justice” doesn’t that make us just as bad as a murderer that murdered for those same reasons? We take justice out of the hands of family members and friends, and put it into the hands of strangers so that we can avoid street style justice.
Not only should we expect more from ourselves than we expect from murderers, but there are many good and rational AND irrational reasons for doing away with the death penalty. Here is an “anti” list from the same site that provided the “pro” list-
- Financial costs to taxpayers of capital punishment is several times that of keeping someone in prison for life.
- It is barbaric and violates the “cruel and unusual” clause in the Bill of Rights.
- The endless appeals and required additional procedures clog our court system.
- We as a society have to move away from the “eye for an eye” revenge mentality if civilization is to advance.
- It sends the wrong message: why kill people who kill people to show killing is wrong.
- Life in prison is a worse punishment and a more effective deterrent.
- Other countries (especially in Europe) would have a more favorable image of America.
- Some jury members are reluctant to convict if it means putting someone to death.
- The prisoner’s family must suffer from seeing their loved one put to death by the state, as well as going through the emotionally-draining appeals process.
- The possibility exists that innocent men and women may be put to death.
- Mentally ill patients may be put to death.
- It creates sympathy for the monstrous perpetrators of the crimes.
- It often draws top talent laywers who will work for little or no cost due to the publicity of the case and their personal beliefs against the morality of the death penalty, increasing the chances a technicality or a manipulated jury will release a guilt person.
- It is useless in that it doesn’t bring the victim back to life.
We have put innocent people to death, it’s unlikely that the death penalty is any kind of deterrent in any situation, it almost certainly does more harm than good to our legal system, and it’s significantly more expensive. The death penalty doesn’t make sense and it’s morally disgusting. We should be better than this. If we can’t be better then that’s why we have the courts, to mitigate our revenge/blood lust. As Americans we should hold ourself to the highest standard, not just pretend to.