The death penalty has always been a contentious topic in America. The matter pertains to the ending of a life in order to punish the taking of a life. This debate has reached a particularly pressing crossroad. According to a 2016 Pew Research survey, support for the death penalty has fallen out of majority favor. Despite there still being more support than opposition, this new revelation impugns the fate of capital punishment in America. It brings into question the extent of the role the penalty should have, if any. The proper role of the penalty, however, is clear: zero role.
In order to understand the current opposition to the penalty, former opposition must be studied first. The support for the death penalty—49 percent—is at the lowest in forty years, meaning that forty years ago support for the penalty lapsed. Both the practice and popularity of the penalty subsided in the years leading up to 1972, the year the Supreme Court decided the landmark case Furman v. Georgia. The case was dealing with a black man, Furman, who believed that his sentencing was racially biased. The Court agreed and struck all capital statutes across all nations, but did not outlaw the penalty itself. States revised their statutes and they were validated in the case Gregg v. Georgia in 1976. Because of the ostensibly infallible aura now encompassing the penalty after the racial bias issue was “solved,” the states were swift in use and the public passionate in support. Support dramatically rose in the 80’s and 90’s, peaking in the 1995, and the penalty cemented itself in the political realm. It was vigorously supported by both sides of the aisle, uniting George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the otherwise divisive 1992 election. However, the more recent elections have seen less adamance for the penalty. While 20 years ago it was that politicians either supported the penalty and were tough on crime or did not and were practically criminals themselves, tentativeness and outright rejection regarding the penalty is more acceptable today. The penalty is no longer a litmus test; it is no longer the manifestation of America’s resilience to crime. So, what has caused this sudden falling out between the public and the penalty? Well, it stems from the realization that the position held by advocates of the penalty has grown entirely indefensible.
A primary argument by penalty proponents is that the penalty effectively deters crime and incapacitates criminals. This, however, is not the case. Studies compiled and analyzed by Michael Radelet and Marian Borg, two sociological professors, show that at a certain point criminals do not feel more threatened by greater severity of a punishment. In essence, life imprisonment without parole—the alternative to the penalty—is just as deterring as a death sentence. Furthermore, the Death Penalty Information Center offers the opinions of criminologists, 88 percent of whom concur that the penalty does not affect homicide rates. In fact, the DPIC found that in the past thirty years, non-penalty states have had lower murder rates than death penalty states. As for incapacitation, while death does ultimately incapacitate a person’s ability to commit crimes, life imprisonment provides substantial incapacitation given that there is no legal means of reentering society. The illegal means, breaking out, is incredibly rare. To accommodate such a concern, these inmates would be placed under high supervision at maximum-security prisons.
Gregg v. Georgia was the supposed confirmation of the rectification of arbitrary sentencing in capital cases. But when America’s entire criminal justice system is being rebuked for injustice along racial lines, the argument cannot be made that its highest punishment is exempt. For executions of those convicted of interracial murders since 1976, 20 had black victims. For white victims, the number is 282. This whopping discrepancy illustrates the irrefutable presence of racial bias in capital sentencing. If our nation cannot ensure with invariable accuracy that bias and discrimination do not exist in its courts, those courts should not have the power to end the life of an American.
These findings, these refutations to conventional arguments put forth by death penalty supporters, shed light and provide clarity for the dramatic decline in popular and political support and clamor. But to supplement these findings, to undeniably demonstrate the necessity of ending the penalty, capital punishment’s complete lack of economic sensibility must be looked at. The long trial process—added to the extensive appeals process—and cost of lethal injection have made the capital punishment unjustifiably costly across the country (millions are being spent per execution). The money used to execute could be put back into the community or put toward more effective law enforcement. In addition, the long process of sentencing and appeals found uniquely in capital punishment counters the conviction that the penalty provides closure to victim’s families. Continual exposure to a person guilty of committing an atrocity on a loved one does not so much provide closure as it does reopened wounds. Furthermore, lethal injection and the electric chair are imperfect methods of administering painless death. When veins are missed, the arm’s muscles are literally corroded. When the volts miscalculated, a man burned to death. These incidents surely contradict the Eighth Amendment of no cruel and unusual punishment.
Based on the absolute impractical, unrighteous, unconstitutional, unjust, and biased nature of the death penalty, the only reasonable role it should play in America is none. More and more Americans are beginning to see it. All civilized nations have seen it. The final entity deserving of capital punishment is the death penalty itself.
By Ryan Hill
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Pew Research Center. (2016, September 26). Support for Death Penalty Continues to Fall. Retrieved from pewresearch.org: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/09/29/support-for-death-penalty-lowest-in-more-than-four-decades/ft_16-09-28_deathpenalty/
Death Penalty Information Center. (2016, November 9). Facts about the Death Penalty. Retrieved fromdeathpenaltyinfo.org: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf
Radelet, M. L., & Borg, M. J. (2000). The Changing Nature of Death Penalty Debates. Annual Reviews of Sociology, 26, 43-61. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/223436
Dieter, R. C. (1994, Fall). Millions Misspent: What Politicians Don’t Say About the High Costs of the Death Penalty. Retrieved from deathpenaltyinfo.org: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/millions-misspent
Virginia’s lethal injection costs set to skyrocket to $16.5k. (2016, September 30). Retrieved from seattletimes.com: http://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/virginias-lethal-injection-costs-set-to-skyrocket-to-16-5k/
Shafdar, K. (2012). Legally Killing People Has Gotten A Lot More Expensive. Retrieved from huffingtonpost.com: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/30/lethal-injection_n_1391408.html