The death penalty remains a matter of controversy in the United States, as some wish to preserve the death penalty while others believe that such a policy is an immoral and a barbaric policy of the past. When considering the arguments in favor of the death penalty, many individuals believe that the idea of retribution acts as justification for the death penalty, while others believe that the death penalty acts as a deterrent against particularly malicious crimes such as rape or murder. However, there are also several arguments against the death penalty. Popular arguments against the death penalty includes the idea that innocent people have often been put to death, and even further, opponents of the death penalty believe that the death penalty is a waste of taxpayer funds. An examination of each of these arguments will prove to illuminate in the continued debate regarding the death penalty in the United States.
Proponents of the death penalty often refer to the idea of retribution as justification for the death penalty. According to Fieser, “The first traditional justification of the death penalty is that it is a direct application of the retributive conception of punishment: the death penalty is justified as a proportionate punishment for a serious crime, which should be carried out because it is deserved for its own sake, and not because of any benefit that it might bring to society” (Fieser 17). As such, proponents of the death penalty often invoke the “eye for an eye” argument most commonly associated with the Bible and the Law of Hammurabi. While these individuals do not have any data to support their arguments, they rather rely on this idea of retribution as a time-honored tradition.
Another argument that proponents of the death penalty often invoke includes the idea that the death penalty acts as a deterrent against similarly malicious crimes. Fieser continues, “the question of capital punishment and deterrence is not whether the death penalty has any deterrent value at all, for it undoubtedly does. Rather, it is a question of whether executing criminals does a better job at deterring others than does long-term or permanent imprisonment. Common sense suggests that the death penalty should be more effective” (Fieser 31). As such, Fieser suggests that the death penalty undoubtedly act as a deterrent to crime. However, the question becomes whether or not this is the best deterrent to crime. Unlike the first argument in favor of the death penalty, this argument can be addressed using verifiable data. According to Ehrenfreund, "the question of whether executions discourage criminals from violent acts is not up to the conscience to decide. Despite extensive research on the questions, criminologists have been unable to assemble a strong case that capital punishment deters crime” (Ehrenfreund 2). Thus, this argument is a weak one that is not backed by the relevant empirical data.
One common argument that opponents of the death penalty reference is the fact that many innocent people have wrongly been put to death. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Innocent people are too often sentenced to death. Since 1973, over 156 people have been released from death rows in 26 states because of innocence. Nationally, at least one person is exonerated for every 10 that are executed” (ACLU 4). The idea of innocent people being put on death row is incredibly troublesome for many individuals, and it is hard to justify government sponsored killings of innocent people for many people in modern day United States of America.
A second common argument against the death penalty follows the idea that the death penalty functions as a massive waste of taxpayer funds. It has been well documented for years that the death penalty ultimately results in a massive waste of resources, most importantly the hard-earned dollars of taxpaying citizens. According to NBC News, “Turns out, it is cheaper to imprison killers for life than to execute them, according to a series of recent surveys. Tens of millions of dollars cheaper, politicians are learning, during a tumbling recession when nearly every state faces job cuts and massive deficits” (NBC News 3). Thus, this is an argument that invokes logic rather than morality. As such, this argument is backed by relevant data that has shown the waste of time, resources, and money that come from the death penalty.
When considering the justice system in the United States, it is important to remember that the death penalty varies between states. Some use the death penalty, while others do not. One such question that arises from this fact surrounds the idea of justice; how can justice be achieved in a system that varies between states? Ultimately, it is difficult to achieve a federal standard of justice when punishments vary from state to state. As such, it remains nearly impossible to maintain one consistent standard of justice at the federal level. Furthermore, if the federal government were to attempt to create a more centralized standard of justice, this would undoubtedly lead to an argument regarding states’ rights vs federal rights. The top ten states that use the death penalty include China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United States, Pakistan, Yemen, Korea, Vietnam, and Libya. Nationally, 49% of Americans are still in favor of the death penalty, while 42% oppose it. In Texas, this percentage is higher, with as high as 73% of Texans supporting the death penalty. This is a bit strange, especially considering the nations that share a list with the United States on using the death penalty. Countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Korea are known for incorporating oppressive regimes into the government. Furthermore, the executions that occur in these countries often become international news and are often examples that serve to highlight the oppressive practices of these governments. Many times, these executions are not justified, which is eerily similar to the United States, in which it has been shown that innocent people are consistently placed on death row. As such, it is strange to know that the United States, a beacon of democracy and freedom, shares the practice of using the death penalty with these countries.
Ehrenfreund, Max. “There's Still No Evidence That Executions Deter Criminals.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 Apr. 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/04/30/theres-still-no-evidence-that-executions-deter-criminals/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.9f0c5319f8e5.
Fieser, James. “Capital Punishment.” The University of Tennessee at Martin, www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class/160/7-cap-pun.htm.
“The Case Against the Death Penalty.” American Civil Liberties Union, www.aclu.org/other/case-against-death-penalty.
“To Execute or Not: A Question of Cost?” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 7 Mar. 2009, www.nbcnews.com/id/29552692/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/execute-or-not-question-cost/#.WtkaJdPwYWo.