The Death Penalty: An Argument for its Continued Use and Examination of Potential Applications

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For many people, the death penalty seems like some sort of strange holdover from medieval times: with the outdated notion that killing a criminal will somehow bring back all of those he or she has killed. Death has become such taboo in this country that even killing those who have been accused of heinous crimes is cause for alarm. Indeed, many, especially the friends and family of the victim, derive a great deal of satisfaction from seeing the killer of their friend or family member pay the ultimate price. In terms of morality, the death penalty is perfectly justified. An eye for an eye is only fair. However, the death penalty has a great number of other benefits in addition to simple justice. Although the cost of the death penalty is much greater than simple incarceration for life, the benefits to society as a whole of the death penalty justify these ends.

The primary and most basic benefit of the death penalty is simple: it kills the criminal. This has a number of immediate benefits, and, in a way, it is the only surefire way to ensure that a criminal will not commit a crime again, which is especially useful if the crime was something especially heinous such as mass murder. This makes killing the criminal work as a sort of secondary deterrent: deterrent for fear of death. This is explained in an article by Hugo Bedau, who stresses the use of fear as a deterrent. " Even though statistical demonstrations are not conclusive, and perhaps cannot be, I believe that capital punishment is likely to deter more than other punishments because people fear death more than anything else. They fear most death deliberately inflicted by law and scheduled by the courts. Whatever people fear most is likely to deter most.” Essentially, the author here is stating that it is difficult, and oftentimes trivial, to attempt to quantify the effectiveness of the death penalty, but that the effects of the death penalty on the human psyche are concrete and undeniable.

Other scholars seem to agree with this sentiment, although the human nature that is being satiated is sometimes on the other side of the execution chamber. Executions work as a form of closure for the friends and family of those murdered, and function as a satisfying conclusion to a painful time of their lives, since the killer is, himself, killed. For example, Richard Worsnop, a researcher, also believes the purpose of the death penalty is a matter of manipulating human instincts, but that these instincts vary. In his essay, Worsnop states that "The instinct for retribution is part of the nature of man and channeling that instinct...serves an important purpose in promoting the stability of a society governed by law." Wosnop is relating to the death penalty of today with any other sort of public execution spectacle, such as the Roman gladiator games. Humans thirst for blood. It is an insatiable part of human nature, and the death penalty helps to satiate that hunger in a constructive way by taking it out on criminals who deserve it.

Perhaps one of the most commonly touted benefits of the death penalty is its usefulness as a deterrent to other criminals. While how effective something is as a deterrent can be difficult to quantify (since one must essentially study what is not there), a study by Hashem Dezhbakhsh and Paul Rubin found that although murder rates were initially higher in states with the death penalty, over the course of a few decades (between 1977 and 1996, to be precise), homicide rates in death penalty states decreased to levels equal to non-death penalty states. With this in mind, it is reasonable to assume that the death penalty functions as a deterrent on at least a moderate level. As for how exactly it works as a deterrent, the article states that an “increase in perceived probabilities of apprehension, conviction given apprehension, or execution given conviction will reduce an individual’s incentive to commit murder,” which basically just means that a criminals who fear death, or retribution, will think twice before committing a crime that is punishable by the death penalty. Facing one’s own mortality can be much different than simply spending a lifetime in a jail cell, which many murderers are already accustomed to anyway. Another simple example of the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent can be found in what is called the Ehrlich study. This study found that, by examining the homicide rate along with the "execution risk" (or the number of murderers executed per capita in each state), there is a negative correlation between changes in the homicide rate and execution risk. The study eventually concludes that for each execution performed, an estimated eight lives are saved.

Opponents of the death penalty cite its ineffectiveness as a deterrent, however. In fact, studies show that in the south, where over 80 percent of executions take place, the murder rates are actually the highest. In addition, the Northeast, which has fewer than 1 percent of all executions, has the lowest murder rate in the country. This has led to a great deal of debate as to the actual effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent. In fact, in recent years, public opinion regarding the death penalty's usefulness has swayed tremendously against the death penalty, to the point where about 88 percent of those surveyed states that they do not believe that executions lower homicide rates, with only 5 percent saying they believe that they did. Clearly, the death penalty has something of an uphill battle ahead if it wants to sway public opinion. One possible solution to this that will allow the death penalty to operate as a deterrent for heinous crimes, yet also appease those who feel like it is not effective, is to simply limit the death penalty to the worst of the worst, so to speak. This would force criminals to rethink their most horrible crimes so that those will hopefully be deterred while leaving single murders and the like to be punished instead of life imprisonment. Of course, deciding who or what constitutes a horrible crime is a bit vague.

For this reason, another important issue when discussing the use of the death penalty is exactly who should be executed. Indeed, many who have been executed in the past did not strictly speak, deserve it. Even those under 18 years of age have been executed: 281 of them, in fact. This is why the death penalty should only be restricted to the most heinous of crimes so that there is never any doubt as to how warranted the death penalty was for each specific case. This would also help with the stigma surrounding the death penalty than blacks are unfairly targeted for death, especially in the southern states, which are notorious for liberally utilizing the death penalty already. For example, a study found that 13 percent of the 823 blacks convicted of rape in the southern states were sentenced to death, while just 2 percent of the 442 convicted whites were sentenced. The proportion of those who commit much more horrible crimes is skewed more toward whites than blacks, which, theoretically, would cause the proportion of those executed being white vs. black to be a little more balanced. Of course, this should not be a racial issue, and deciding who should or should not be executed based on race remains unacceptable.

Finally, the last major issue with the death penalty today is its cost. For example, in California, it costs about $90,000 more per inmate per year to leave them on death row, which, with California's prisoner population of 670, accounts for about $63.3 million annually. This means that, from an economical standpoint, the current process of forcing inmates to remain in death row for an extended period of time before being executed is not acceptable. For this reason, one possible solution to one of the largest problems with the death penalty is simple: execute the prisoner immediately. This would ensure that the process is not overly long and complicated since there would have to have been a great deal of work and evidence working against the inmate so that release is near-impossible anyway. It would also wrap up the crime cleanly and quickly so that people would not have to wait on a conclusion, which oftentimes takes many years. It would also, of course, be much cheaper, saving millions of dollars for most states that practice the death penalty each year. This money could be used to make some of the other living conditions of prisons more acceptable, or go into other areas altogether, such as education, or public works projects.

Although the death penalty is controversial and somewhat expensive to justify, it is nonetheless at least somewhat effective at deterring crime. Due to the nature of deterrence, it is impossible to see when the death penalty actually works as a deterrent. It is only possible to see when it does not work, and that, unfortunately, is when another innocent life is taken. The problem with the death penalty stems from human rights taking center stage on two different sides of the law: those who have violated it, and those the victims, along with their friends and family. While it would be all too easy to simply kill all murderers immediately, they do still have basic rights as human beings, and debates surrounding the death penalty are a testament to that. While there are problems with the death penalty that cause many to loathe it, it simply has too many benefits to simply abolish it altogether. It is necessary to examine its weaknesses and correct them. However, the continued use of the death penalty can only be beneficial for the society in general, despite the numerous issues that people have with it. It is a living example of the complications of the justice system.