Since the seventeenth century, the arguments for and against the death penalty have remained fairly constant (Pickens). Supporters of the death penalty believe that the practice is justifiable for reasons including retribution, social protection against dangerous people, and deterrence. People against capital punishment have expressed their belief that capital punishment is not a deterrent because states without the practice have the same average murder rates as those that do. They believe that the imposition of the death penalty makes juries more likely to respond irrationally and with fear resulting in a miscarriage of justice, namely the death of an innocent person. Religious groups have stated that perfect justice is not humanly possible and have expressed opposition towards capital punishment. Capital punishment has historically been used most frequently against the poor and certain ethnic groups causing some to perceive the practice as a means of social control.
One major reason why the death penalty should be abolished is that it leads to the executions of some citizens who are in fact innocent. Since 1973, 133 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence (Death Penalty Information Center). The following question allows one to better understand the opposition of religious groups towards capital punishment: "If we choose to worship an innocent who was executed as a criminal, shouldn't we care about the execution of innocents in our time?" However, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia stated in 2006 that there is no "single verifiable case to point to" that proves that an innocent person has been executed, and that although no criminal justice system can completely rule out "the possibility that someone will be punished mistakenly", the likelihood of this happening in the U.S. has been "reduced to an insignificant minimum" (Winright). But one must ask themselves how the wrongful death of even one innocent person is insignificant. New Jersey's Death Penalty Study Commission, which completed a study of all aspects of the death penalty in New Jersey, concluded in part that whatever good might be served by executing a small number of guilty persons would not justify the risk of executing an innocent one. Given how often innocent people are executed, the death penalty is a measure civilized societies shouldn't employ regardless of how efficient the practice is.
Contradicting the evidence that capital punishment is harmful to society is the following viewpoint by Walter Berns:
Abolitionists distrust and dismiss retribution as a justification for capital punishment. They do not understand that the anger a community feels toward a criminal who has caused the innocent to suffer is a sign of the highest morality. This kind of anger leads people to seek justice and protect their community. Society is justified in executing serious criminals in order to achieve justice and retribution (Berns).
Berns believes that we imprison criminals as a form of pay back for their crimes and that it is a moral necessity to execute the worst of them. He is also convinced that executing the worst of criminals does not sacrifice human dignity. In his viewpoint, Berns expresses his belief that the ultimate punishment, the death penalty, "must remind us of the moral order by which alone we can live as human beings" (Berns). Berns clearly conceives that the purpose of our justice system is to punish criminals out of the demand for justice thereby breeding respect for the law. He is certain that the presence of capital punishment in the law will create a more trustworthy society in which citizens will not commit crimes in such great amounts even in the absence of law enforcement.
Abolitionists oppose the viewpoint that retribution is a justification of capital punishment because of their belief that vengeance and revenge is the aim of the death penalty. From a psychological perspective, immediate victims and society as a whole desire the satisfaction associated with seeing the suffering inflicted upon themselves returned to the criminal who initially caused their suffering. This feeling of getting even with the criminal creates a peace of mind for the people affected by crimes such as murder. What is increasingly happening is that juries are satisfying the interests of society and those of the immediate victims corrupting the judicial system. The purpose of juries is not to feel the pain those close to a murder victim feel, but measure the toll on society the crime has created (Cohen). It is also not the job of juries to provide victims of a gruesome crime with satisfaction, but provide reliable, unbiased punishment for the suffering inflicted upon society as a whole. The abolishment of capital punishment will not only eliminate the heat of revenge from the sentencing process, but make sentences fairer and minimize discrimination in regards to race, gender, and social status since bias becomes more of a factor the more passionately a process is conducted.
Another reason why capital punishment should be abolished is the fact that many states and countries have abolished the death penalty. As of April 2010, 95 nations have banned the death penalty (Gajewski). On November 19, 2009, Russia's constitutional court extended a thirteen year moratorium on the death penalty. In Mongolia, President Tsakhia Elbegdorj has commuted three sentences since taking office and has placed a moratorium on the death penalty. In addition, he has called for an end to the practice. In the United States, New Mexico has abolished the death penalty and replaced it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Influenced by a report prepared by the Public Defender Department, lawmakers realized that they could save millions of dollars on prosecution costs if they eliminated capital punishment. In New Hampshire and Colorado, the House of Representatives passed measures to abolish the death penalty recently (Death penalty under examination). In 2007, New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine signed legislation abolishing what he called "state-endorsed killing" (Christian Century). According to assembly member Reed Gusciora, "murderers have not been deterred in the 2,000 years the death penalty has been in effect." Although capital punishment remains a significant part of the justice system in the United States and many parts of Asia, many countries and states are realizing the consequences of having capital punishment and are taking progressive measures towards abolishing it.
Disputing the evidence that capital punishment results in the deprivation of innocent lives is the following statement by Roy D. Adler and Michael Summers:
Most commentators who oppose capital punishment assert that an execution has no deterrent effect on future crimes. Recent evidence, however, suggests that the death penalty, when carried out, has an enormous deterrent effect on the number of murders. More precisely, our recent research shows that each execution carried out is correlated with about 74 fewer murders the following year (Goldstein).
Alder and Summers claim that each execution has a huge deterrent effect on murder rates the following year. They believe that prior to the publication of their report, activists for the abolition of capital punishment could feel that they'd saved a life after working tirelessly to commute the sentence of a convicted murderer. The professors insist that based on their research, it is the duty of the criminal justice system to deprive the lives of convicted murderers to create a strong deterrent effect that will save dozens of lives the following year.
This statement is not an accurate reflection of the deterrent effect associated with capital punishment due to the fact that the study was conducted from the early 1990s on, which was a period of rapidly falling crime rates nationwide. In addition to the decrease in homicide, crime rates fell consistently across the board. Due to the fact that the study was conducted in a period of rapidly decreasing crime rates, a correlation between crime rate and the deterrent effect associated with capital punishment cannot be observed. This study is flawed geographically as well by comparing very distant places. For example, the decrease in murders in New York can't be attributed to capital punishment because most of the executions occurred in Southern states. The report prepared by Alder and Summers is so plagued with flaws that no connection between capital punishment and any associated deterrent effect can be observed.
The biggest reason why capital punishment should be abolished is that it does not deter crime any more than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In a study published in 2009, Radelet and Lacock surveyed America's leading criminologists on their opinion of the deterrence effects of capital punishment over long term imprisonment. To be eligible to participate in this survey, the criminologists had to be a Fellow in the American Society of Criminology (ASC) at some time, apprehend the ASC's Sutherland Award (the organizations most prestigious award given for contributions to criminological theory), or been a president of the ASC between 1997 and the present. Founded in 1941, the American Society of Criminology is the world's largest organization of academic criminologists. Although the questionnaire was sent to the 94 criminologists meeting these requirements, only 79 of them responded resulting in an 84 percent response rate.
The first question asked the criminologists if they felt the death penalty lowers murder rates. 88.2% of those polled felt capital punishment wasn't a deterrent. When asked if they thought death-penalty states had lower homicide rates than neighboring non-death penalty states, 74.7% of the experts felt this statement was false. In 2007, states with an active death penalty had homicide rates that were 42% higher than their non-death penalty counterparts (Radelet and Lacock). There was a strong overall agreement among the criminologists that politicians support the death penalty because it makes them appear tough on crime. In addition, only 8.3% of the respondents believed increasing the frequency of executions would increase the death penalty's overall deterrent effect. Besides that, only 12.4% thought shortening the time between sentence and execution would add to the death penalty's deterrent effect. Concluding the questionnaire, 89.6% of the experts disagreed that executing people deters others from committing murder.
The result of Radelet and Lacock's study shows that an overwhelming number of criminologists strongly believe that the death penalty does not add any additional deterrent effects to those achieved by long term imprisonment (Radelet and Lacock). Only ten percent or less of the top criminologists surveyed believe that the presence of the death penalty reduces homicide rates more than long-term imprisonment. Summarizing the results of this study, most criminologists think that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment and only a few believe the threat or use of the death penalty reduces homicide rates more than long-term imprisonment.
Capital punishment should be abolished because it leads to the executions of some citizens who are in fact innocent. States like New Mexico have realized that they can save millions of dollars on prosecution costs if they abolished the death penalty. New Jersey's Death Penalty Commission concluded in part that whatever good might be served by executing a small number of guilty persons would not justify the risk of executing an innocent one. The fact that 133 people have been released from death row with proof of their innocence since 1973 shows how unreliable and unsuited our justice system is to have capital punishment. But the fact is that almost all of America's top criminologists agree that capital punishment doesn't lower murder rates or add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment. In addition, the statistic that states with an active death penalty have homicide rates that are 42% higher than their non-death penalty counterparts shows how ineffective and potentially dangerous the death penalty is. Replacing capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is a win for everyone. It's a win for all the people affected by a murder since the convict will suffer more than if executed overcoming the day-to-day struggles prison has to offer. In addition, it's a win for the convicted criminal because he/she will be allowed to continue living making it easier on his/her family. Last of all, it's a win for the government because huge amounts of money will be saved on prosecution costs easing the burden on state budgets and taxpayers. But if a convict that has not been executed is found to be innocent, all that he/she was deprived of was precious time to enjoy life. No one deserves to be deprived of their life for crime they did not do. Regardless of how efficient the death penalty is, it is a measure civilized societies just shouldn't employ. It is for these reasons that capital punishment should be abolished.
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