23 October 2014
Is the Death Penalty Actually Effective?
Of the many crimes one could commit, murder, felony manslaughter, espionage, genocide, and treason are a few of the crimes that can lead to one paying with the ultimate price, their own life. Lethal injection, gas chamber, firing squad, electrocution, and hanging are the methods of death afforded for those who commit such heinous acts. However, does knowing the possible consequences of capital offenses deter individuals from committing the crimes? Did it make you stop and think? In the United States the death penalty is used as a punishment for capital offenses. These specifically can vary from state to state, but commonly include first-degree murder, murder with special circumstances, rape with additional bodily harm, and the federal crime of treason. (Facts) The goal of the death penalty then, is to deter these crimes from even taking place, to be so feared that offenders think twice about committing such horrible crimes. But does it? In the following paper, the above question will attempt to be answered by looking at the background of capital punishment and the death penalty, the ideas behind it, viable alternatives, and finally, the effectiveness of the death penalty at deterring crime.
Early death penalty laws date back to the Eighteenth Century B.C.. The death penalty also had a heavy presence in the Fourteenth Century Hittite Code, the Seventh Century Draconian Code of Athens, and the Fifth Century Roman Law of the Twelve Tablets. (History, 1) Today, thirty-four states in the United States of America still practice the death penalty as a means of punishment for capital offenses and heinous crimes. The death penalty debate is one that Americans are no strangers to; it has been abolished and repealed numerous times throughout our history. Two of the first influential cases dates back to 1968, US v. Jackson and Witherspoon v. Illinois. In each of these cases, the Supreme Court began changing the way the death penalty was administered. It was decided that the death penalty no longer was a mandated punishment for certain crimes and could be imposed only by recommendation of the jury. (History, 3) Then, on 9 June 1972, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty across the United States, commuting the sentences of some 630 prisoners on death row. (History,3) This moratorium lasted until 1977 when a prisoner was executed by firing squad in Utah. Today, states are able to write their own death penalty statutes. However, the U.S. Government and the U.S. Military have mandatory statutes in place for capital offenses. These were just a few out of dozens of cases involving the death penalty and its legality. It can be said that some of the controversy surrounding the death penalty deals with the fundamental ideas behind it. The ideas behind the death penalty can be as broad as providing just punishment for crimes, and as detailed as the various methods one can choose to be executed. The goal of the modern day death penalty is to punish people for specific, horrible crimes, and in turn, deter members of society from committing these acts in the first place. Controversy surrounding the death penalty includes questioning its functionality in a modern world and the success of its actions. Questions such as, does it make sense to kill people to stop the act of killing people (i.e. murder, manslaughter), and do criminals committing these acts actually take into account the possible punishments for their actions, are the most prominent. (Berry,442) The remainder of the paper will address these questions with the help of experts in the fields of law and criminology. First, are there viable alternatives to the death penalty available? This looks to make sense of the idea of killing people to stop killing people. This idea is more than just a tongue twister, it’s a question that is heavily debated, often using cost-benefit analysis of the death penalty vs. alternatives. Ralph Dellapiana attempts to answer this question with two possible alternatives, along with their respective pros and cons. Mr. Dellapiana is a trial attorney with the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association and is Death Penalty Project Director for the Salt Lake Chapter of the High Road for Human rights. His response was printed in the scholarly, peer-reviewed Utah Bar Journal in 2009. When asked the question, “Is life without parole a viable alternative to the death penalty,” Mr. Dellapiana not only responded yes, but went on to quote on of the current State Supreme Court judges, “ Based on our experience, a sentence of life without parole may be less expensive to the state, more miserable for the guilty, and more certain for the victims of society.” The next question to seek to answer is death penalty’s effectiveness at deterring crime. The University of Texas at Dallas published a research article in 2006, with the American Society of Criminology on the effectiveness of the death penalty in deterring crime. In their research article, “Does the Death Penalty Save Lives?”, they used annual state panel data and widely available economical data to measure procedures for panel data analysis, to “run the numbers”, and test the thesis capital punishment deters homicide. Their results concluded, “ No empirical support for the argument that the existence or the application of the death penalty deters prospective offenders from committing homicide.” (Kovandzic, 837) This was not the only reputable group to conduct such a study. While researching sources, I came across many who had come to the same conclusion. What does this mean for the death penalty? There is another view to look at this question and that is with the criminals themselves. During my research of the topic, I found many academic sources stating that the death penalty does not deter crime. Many of these studies and journal articles used mathematical tests as well as criminal profiles to come to their conclusions. They used the hard numbers, which makes it difficult to argue against. The question that came to mind then was, if the academics of our time can prove with numbers that the death penalty does not effectively deter crime, why does the United States still even have it? Is public opinion on the side of pro death penalty as a means of punishment? No, in actuality support for the death penalty here in the United States has been decreasing over time, especially in the last few years. An October 2011 Gallup poll showed, “sixty-one percent of Americans approve of using the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, down from 64% last year. This is the lowest level of support since 1972 when the Supreme Court voided all existing state death penalty laws. “ Also, a 2010 poll by Lake Research Partners found that sixty-one percent of voters would choose punishment other than the death penalty for murder, including life without the possibility of parole. Support for the death penalty here in the United States appears to be waning and is backed by empirical evidence that the death penalty is not an effective crime deterrent. There is one more important factor that plays into the death penalty as a means of punishment for human beings across the globe and that is human rights and the right to life. Amnesty International is a very well known opponent of the death penalty on the international front. They work to end the abuses of human rights. AI is a three million people strong movement that protects human rights on varying levels. They fight for human rights based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10,1948. The Declaration of Human Rights states that all humans have the right to life. Amnesty International feels strongly that the death penalty violates this right. It is an important point to think about and consider but one that cannot be answered with empirical evidence. As you can see through reading this paper, there are many factors that come into play when discussing the death penalty. America’s back-and-forth history toward the death penalty makes it difficult for us to unite under one law. When you delve into the intentions and ideas behind it, more thoughts mix in and jumble the process even more. Next, the question of viable alternatives comes to mind and is answered by members of the judicial system. Finally, the most important factual question of the effectiveness is looked at regarding the death penalty’s ability to deter crime. The paper has looked to answer these questions and incite thoughts about the death penalty. The data discovered seems to point toward the fact that the death penalty might not have a future much longer as we progress through the 20th Century.