Capital Punishment

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Capital punishment is the highest form of punishment the government can exact on a convicted person, penalty of death by execution. Capital crimes are defined differently in each state and by the Federal government. Typically, a capital crime is egregious where one has caused the death of another. The debate on the validity of the death penalty continues today. Opponents in this debate fall into two main groups, the abolitionists who think the death penalty is cruel and does not deter murder, believe the death penalty should be removed. The retentionists believe that the death penalty is effective and should be retained. In capital cases, considering that one has killed another, punishment and retribution for justice is broadly considered to be proportional to the crime. It is the moral duty of the government to exact justice for the victim and the community. 

This essay will evaluate statistics regarding the death penalty and its causal link to crime deterrence. It will be shown that the death penalty has little to no effect on the rates of murder in several states. Therefore, the deterrence argument will be rendered invalid. Further, this paper will discuss the philosophical theory of justice to consider whether the death penalty is a morally just punishment. 

Currently, thirty-six states and the Federal government have the death penalty for capital offenses. In 2010 there were 3,158 inmates under sentence of death in the United States. Four states hold half of all death row inmates (California, Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania). In 2010, 119 inmates were removed from death row, 46 were executed, 20 died of other causes, and 53 convictions or sentences were overturned or commuted. In 2010 104 persons were sentenced to death, 53% from California, Florida, Arizona, or Texas (Snell, 2012). These statistics present a snapshot of the impact of the death penalty and the raw number of people sentenced to death. The most interesting observations from these statistics is the rate in which death sentences were overturned or commuted. 45% of those removed from death row in 2010 were removed by the courts of appeal. 

In 1977 the Supreme Court of the United States lifted the moratorium on the death penalty. They were satisfied that there were statutory changes in the states with the death penalty that provided for an extensive length of appeal in nearly every level of court in the Country. The cost to the government to prosecute an individual capital case is estimated at between 2.5 - 5 million dollars. Considering the high cost of these prosecutions, there is some consideration that this money would be better spent on other law enforcement activities, such as more police officers. Regardless, the point that almost half of the inmates taken off death row are taken off by the courts that put them there in the first place. This appeal process is exhaustive and in 2010 the average wait time from sentencing to execution was 178 months (Snell, 2012). 

Death row is a lonely place and the average wait is nearly fifteen years in prison, usually confined or isolated from other prisoners bolsters the argument that the death penalty is cruel not just in that it results in death, but the agony exacted on the condemned is cruel and disproportional to the capital offense. Facing ones on death for fifteen years while going through agonizing appeals where almost half of the cases the sentence gets commuted due to an error in due process. In many cases an error was discovered and the one sentenced to die was exonerated under new evidence of a convincieng showing of a violation of due process. This supports the abolitionists argument, that the death penalty is too expensive, and the risk of judicial error is too great considering the irreversible effect of an execution in lieu of life in prison. However, the retentionists believe that there is a real link between the death penalty and deterrence. In considering this argument this essay looked at the four states with the highest rates of death penalties and compared their murder rates by evaluating crimes statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  

Between 2010 through 2011 the rate of murder was 4.8 per 100,000 nationally. The rates for the four states putting the most people on death row was as follows: Arizona, 6.4, California 4.8, Florida, 5.2, Texas, 4.9.  In the states where the most people are sentenced to death also carry rates of capital crime higher than the national average. California, Texas and Florida are large states with greater population than Arizona, however, considering the statistic as a rate per 100,000 shows that there is a disproportionately high murder rate in Arizona nearly 33% higher than the national average. If the idea is that the death penalty will deter murder, it’s not working in Arizona based on these statistics. It’s not working in any of the states with the highest rates of death sentences, all of them are at national average or above. However, in comparison, evaluating the states that do not have the death penalty including is illuminating. 

Alaska, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York were selected for evaluation for this essay because they do not have the death penalty and they represent a bit of a cross section of America. The rates of murder in these states are, Alaska, 4.3, Massachusetts, 3.3, New Jersey, 4.2, and New York, 4.5 (FBI, 2011). In all of these states the rates of murder per 100,000 were lower than the national average than the states with the death penalty. This clearly shows that there is no causal link between the death penalty and deterrence of murder. This evidence shows that there may be a causal link to an increase in murder because of the death penalty. 

The premise that the death penalty is a deterrent for violent crime requires evidence of a link between the death penalty and less capital crime. The data evaluated shows that this is not true. In states with the death penalty, capital crimes were above the national average. In states with no death penalty the rates of capital crime were lower. Therefore, the premise of deterrence is proved false. Additionally, the notion that the death penalty increases capital crime is to be considered. These conclusions rely on the premise that if the death penalty was a deterrent to murder, the murder rates in states with the death penalty would logically go down. This is not the case. It is possible that there are other factors involved, but this claim is based on that direct argument. The premise that the death penalty should be a punishment exacted by government is a consideration of the theory of justice and the fundamental elements for why governments exists. It is primarily the role of government to protect its citizens. By making, enforcing, and interpreting laws, all branches of government are involved with determining what justice is and how it works. 

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are considered moral values in the United States. Government shall not infringe on an individual’s right without due process of law. The government is charged with making laws that are just. What is just considered in the utilitarian sense is what is the good for the greatest number. Justice is considered a cardinal virtue in Greek philosophy. Justice is the idea of being fair, reasonable, and restoring wholeness to the community. The judicial branch is charged with determining whether execution is a proper form of punishment in particular cases.  When one is unjust to another, the government intervenes to make the victim whole by punishing the criminal to deter further crimes, maintain order, and do the right thing. For the death penalty to be valid it must serve the higher virtues and values of the theoretical notion of justice. 

Kant supported the death penalty from purely the rational consequentialist point of view. His position was that as rational beings, choices are made and there are consequences for choices. If one commits a capital crime, they should receive capital punishment not because society is being cruel, but because that is what the perpetrator asked for (Vaughn, 360). Kant did not support this with retribution or torture, more in similarity to the golden rule (Vaughn, 369). It could be considered that being locked away for 178 months while awaiting your death is cruel and torturous. 

In essence, justice is giving to those their just deserts. In situations of crime, the government must protect property and life from deprivation from others. As a virtue, justice is balance and wholeness in the community assuming a, “Prior equality to indicate that it is the starting point from which departures are justified. By a meritorian analysis of justice I mean one which accommodates considerations of individual worthiness” (Campbell, 12). Here Campbell assumes that all are born equal in the eyes of the law and therefore all should be treated the same until there is a reason to treat someone differently. Following assumed equality justice considers merit, why are some people treated differently than others. Because they deserve it. When one causes the death of another, they have committed a crime that has already be considered unjust and laws have been made to forbid it. The law has been broken now punishment is considered for the sake of civil society, the individual who is not a law-abiding citizen, and for the victims. Justice is charged with evaluating what is prudent to make all things right, to make the civil society whole. 

This essay explored the efficacy of capital punishment for deterring capital crimes. It was concluded that states with the highest rates of death penalty sentences also had higher rates of murder. While in some states that do not have the death penalty the rates of murder were lower. This is antithetical to the argument that capital punishment deters crime. If the claim is held that there is a causal link between the death penalty and capital crime, then it follows that there is a reason why capital crime is higher in states with the death penalty than those without.  There may be other causal links that would be worthy of exploring in a different context. 

Further, this essay explored the idea of justice as a moral virtue concerned with wholeness of the community. The notion considers deserts in the criminal context, what is necessary for the government to do to protect the individuals in civil society. The government favors a utilitarian and consequentialist approach. Further, that justice is meritorian in that what factors should be considered to treat people differently to restore equilibrium to civil society. 

As the debate on the wisdom of the death penalty continues, this paper concluded that justice is a moral virtue of wholeness in the community. This paper also showed that capital punishment does not deter capital crime as evidenced by a review of pertinent statistics.   

Works Cited

Campbell, Tom. Justice. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, Scholarly and Reference Division, 2001.

"Crime in the United States FBI — Table 4." www.fbi.gov. Federal Bureau of Investigation. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/tables/table-4.

Snell, Tracey. "Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) - Capital Punishment." Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) . United States Department of Justice, 1 Dec. 2011. http://bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=18.

Vaughn, Lewis. Doing ethics: moral reasoning and contemporary issues. W. W. Norton, 2013.