The use of capital punishment in the U.S. is a growing concern for most American citizens. The controversy of whether to abolish it or not creates moral confusion. On one hand, it brings justice, yet on the other, it’s taking a life. According to statistics, seventy percent of Americans are in support of the death penalty, while only thirty percent are against it. This clearly shows that a majority of people want to continue using this type of punishment (“Fact” 1). Digging deeper into the debate, one would find that there are two sides to every party’s opinion; whether it be religious, governmental, or other. After examining expenditures, morality, deterrent compensations, and retributions, one will likely conclude that the benefits of Capital punishment outweigh the harm.
Nearly all civilizations historically have used execution to punish offenders and criminals alike; though customs are different today. Since WWII people routinely try to abolish the death penalty. Today ninety countries have abolished capital punishment for all offenses, eleven for all offenses except under special circumstances, and thirty-two others have not used it for at least ten years. A total of sixty-four countries still retain it. This includes the People’s Republic of China who performed more than 3,400 executions in 2004, amounting to more than 90% of executions worldwide. Within 12 states, the US executed 59 prisoners the same year (Penketh). To abolish the death penalty, people would have to prove points in every aspect of its existence.
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The economical argument that people must always consider is the cost of the death penalty as opposed to life imprisonment. According to California state records, the operating expense to finance the penalty costs taxpayers more than $114 million annually (Tempest). A 2005 report from Newsday concluded that New Jersey taxpayers have spent a total of $253 million since 1983, which is an incomparably greater cost than if capital punishment was idle (Newsday). “A 1991 study of the Texas criminal justice system estimated the cost of appealing capital murder at $2,316,655. In contrast, the cost of housing a prisoner in a Texas maximum security prison single cell for 40 years is estimated at $750,000″ (Punishment). People have raised the question, “Why keep the death penalty if it is so costly?” and have also stated, “It is a wasteful investment that is only adding to the national debt.”
The death penalty is not nearly as wasteful as the pork-barrel spending and project funding that our government does constantly. If taxpayers are looking for financial relief, they should fight against their dollars going to abstract causes. A famous, or rather infamous, example of this frivolous spending is seen in a project nicknamed the “Big Dig.” Located in Boston, this megaproject planned to re-route Interstate 93 through a 3.5-mile long tunnel. The project commenced in 1985 with a predicted cost of 2.8 billion, but due to complex obstacles, it has taken 23 years to complete and has cost taxpayers over 14.6 Billion (Johnson). It has been declared the most expensive highway project in the U.S. (After Dig). The NASA program also consumes a tremendous amount of money annually. Their steadily increasing budget rose to a cool 16.2 billion this year and is expected to rise to 17.3 billion in 2008 (Canizares).
There is a towering list of other side projects that our money contributes to; making the death penalty expenditures look like a drop in the bucket. And although capital punishment isn’t exactly cost-effective, it is not the problem people should be worried about economically. Some people, however, are not worried about expenses. To them, the financial situation is a problem but isn’t what’s important. It comes down to the age-old question of right or wrong. Capital punishment is a double edge sword and the debate asks whether that is good or evil. The death penalty is such a capricious moral dilemma that many people turn to the Bible for answers. In the book of Genesis, the first mentioning of capital punishment is in G. 4:11-15 which states, “…a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.
And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him” (KJV) Adam and Eve’s sons were Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a shepherd. Each brought the best that they had produced as a sacrifice to God. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but rejected Cain’s. His resultant disappointment turned to anger; he killed his brother. God cursed Cain for the murder and sent him to wander the Earth. God also put a mark on Cain’s body so that nobody who saw him would be motivated to kill him. If anyone killed Cain for the murder of his brother, that person would be very severely punished. Here, banishment and exile is the penalty for murder; capital punishment is specifically prohibited (Robinson). The next verse, Genesis 9:6, overtly contradicts this one of banishment. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man, shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” (KJV)
At first read, it may seem like a translation of the death penalty, but as author Walter Berns points out in his book “Crime and the Morality of the Death Penalty,” this verse can be translated in more than one way. He states that some people have taken it as banishment; or in modern times, life imprisonment (Berns 12). It seems even the Bible has trouble indicating if the death penalty is right or wrong. Two Supreme Court cases show that the government had trouble determining a proper settlement for capital punishment and ruled two different ways. In the first case of Furman v. Georgia, petitioner Furman accidentally shot a family member while burglarizing a home and was sentenced to death. Thereafter, the Court held that the imposition of the death penalty, in this case, constituted cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Constitution (Oyez Project).
The death penalty was banned for four years until 1976 in the case of Gregg v. Georgia in which the court decided to have two different trials: 1) To prove if the defendant was guilty or innocent, 2) To decide what the punishment should be. The second trial took into consideration the criminal’s prior record, age, mental issues, or lack of a criminal record. The reasoning for a two-stage decision-making process was to ensure a justifiable reason to execute a person (Coenen). Though the court’s final decision is indisputable it is still considered to be disputable. The court, for now, sees the death penalty as a just action and will explicitly enforce it, even with the confusing morals that entangle it. Executing a person is seen as cruel and unusual, but in cases of murders and serial killers, the action is just. One side will argue that two wrongs don’t make a right, while the other says that it is fair retribution. Technically, both sides are correct, nonetheless, the death sentence to those who deserve it is more justifiable, and also serves as compensation to victim-survivors.
Capital punishment is a method of retributive punishment. “People that favor the death penalty agree that capital punishment is a relic of barbarism, but as murder itself is barbaric, they contend that death is a fitting punishment for it” (Jayewardene 87). Most retentionists agree with the principle of “an eye for an eye,” and say execution is the only way to truly satisfy the public as well as themselves. Who doesn’t enjoy it when, for example, a criminal steals ten dollars from a pedestrian and then that person sees someone else steal ten dollars from the criminal. Retentionists feel much the same way about murderers who are sentenced to die. Murderers cause a mountain of sorrow and anger to the victim’s family and friends, and the only way justice could be served seems to be for that criminal to die. Prisons serve three meals a day and allow inmates to socialize; for the murderer to simply go to jail seems unfair.
On the contrary, “some retentionists consider execution to be more humane than life imprisonment because it is quick and instantaneous” (Cantu). Some Capital Punishment supporters claim that a prisoner’s expulsion to life in jail is torturous and inhuman and execution is not. Proponents explain that if murders are not put to death it leaves open the possibility of parole or escaping and causing another death. “We think that some criminals must be made to pay for their crimes with their lives, and we think that we, the survivors of the world they violated, may legitimately extract that payment because we, too, are their victims” (Bedau 317). Proponents say the death penalty deters lawbreakers from committing serious crimes in fear of feasible death. A stern sentence, they believe, produces a positive moral influence that puts a stigma on unsettling crimes. Perhaps this is the intended goal of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. It “establishes constitutional procedures for the imposition of the death penalty for federal crimes.
It applies to federal statutes that previously carried the death penalty and creates many new capital offenses. As a result of the Act, the death penalty may now be imposed for nearly sixty federal crimes. New capital offenses include the murder of a federal prisoner serving a life sentence and drive-by shootings in the course of certain drug offenses” (Violent crime Act). Fear and intimidation is the way to create moral and obedient citizens. An example of deterrence is during the time New York had no capital punishment policy. Drug offenses and murders rates were at an all-time high, as well as gang-related crimes and so on. Since Governor George E. Pataki took office and established the death penalty in 1995 he states, “[…] violent crime has dropped 23%, assaults are down 22%, and murders have dropped by nearly one-third. New Yorkers now live in safer communities because we finally have begun to create a climate that protects and empowers our citizens, while giving criminals good cause to fear arrest and conviction” (Pataki). Though this method of crime deterrence does not work everywhere, for example, California has high homicide rates with the death penalty in effect; it is proven to deter crime to some extent in any place.
On the other hand, opponents to the penalty debate whether it deters murder at all. The New York case might have been an exception to how well capital punishment prevents crime. The primary reason that so much controversy surrounds this question is on account of the inability to make any accurate statistics; being it is impossible to know who may have been deterred from committing a crime. Regardless of this factual error, Eugene Block sternly says that the death penalty provides no deterrent based on the facts he has gathered. He explains that countries such as Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, and Belgium have not carried out executions since the early part of the century, yet these countries have not experienced a rise in crime rates (Block, 1983). The opponents also insist that most murders occur in the heat of passion or while under the influence, and the fear of possibly being caught and executed by the state is unlikely to enter a mad man’s head during this time.
Major supporters contend the death penalty doesn’t deter crime as well as it should because it is not used enough or announced publicly. In many murder cases, very few people are actually sentenced to death and so the death penalty doesn’t act as a satisfactory deterrent. During highly publicized death penalty cases, however, the homicide rate is found to go down but goes back up when the case is over (Bailey). According to an examination of the “Death Penalty and Legislature,” Henry Schwarzchild calculated that if the courts were to “carry out the death penalty for every murder, then we would be executing 400 persons per week (Bedau 366). Sentencing four-hundred people to death a week is indubitably overkilled, but reinforcing the penalty’s intolerance will ensure it is taken seriously. After studying the pros and cons of capital punishment, people are faced with the one remaining question; should people keep the death penalty?
The answer is yes. Opponents make an honorable dispute fronting the penalty’s weaknesses; but even so, the working benefits of capital punishment outweigh its downfalls. Every citizen has the right to be concerned with rising taxes and national debt, but condemning the death penalty for empty pockets, instead of another reckless spending, doesn’t add up. In addition, that money aids us in restraining murder rates and also serves as retribution to a victim’s family. Ridding ourselves of capital punishment on account of its lack of deterrence would be neither decent nor rational. Until people find a better way to deter crime, the death penalty is our strongest defense. Of course, its moral value will always be in question; whether it’s moral to make payback or immoral to play God. The answer will lie in the future of our ever-changing moral principles. I have already stated what I believe. It is now up to you to be the jury and choose whether to abolish or advocate.
- A., Robinson B. “Two Conflicting Penalties for the First Murder — in Genesis.” (2005). 9 Dec. 2007 <http://www.religioustolerance.org/exe_bibl.htm>.
- Bailey, William C. “Murder, Capital Punishment, and Deterrence.” Journal of Social Issues (1994).
- Baird, Robert M., and Stuart E. Rosenbaum. Punishment and the Death Penalty. 1995. 109.
- Bedau, Adam H. “In Spite of Innocence.” Boston: Northeastern University Press (1992).
- Block, Eugene B. “When Men Play God: the Fallacy of Capital Punishment.” Cragmont Publications 1983.
- Canizares, Alex. “Congress OKs $28.8 Billion NASA Spending Bill.” (2007). 9 Dec. 2007 <http://www.space.com/news/spaceagencies/nasa_spending_bill_001017.html>.
- Cantu, Leslie. “Opposing the Death Penalty.” <http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~tonya/spring/cap/lcantu.htm>.
- Coenen, Dan T. University of Georgia. (2004). 4 December 2007
- “Death Penalty Facts.” (1995). 15 Dec. 2007 <http://susers.aol.com/mcluf/deathf.htm>.
- Furman V. Georgia. No. 408 U.S. 238. 17 Jan. 1972. 5 Dec. 2007.
- Glen, Johnson. “Governor Seeks to Take Control of Big Dig Inspections.” Boston Globe 13 July 2006.
- “New Jerseyans Look for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.” Newsday 21 Nov. 2005.
- Pataki, George E. “Death Penalty is a Deterrent.” USA Today 1 Sept. 1995. 9 Dec. 2007 << http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/Articles/Pataki.htm>>.
- Penketh, Anne. “China Leads Death List as Number of Executions Around the World Soars.” The Independent (UK) (2005). 7 Dec. 2007.
- “Review Begins After Big Dig Tunnel Collapse.” CNN (2006). 8 Dec. 2007 <www.CNN.com>.
- S., Jayewardene H. “The Penalty of Death.” Lexington, Massachusetts (1977).
- Tempest, Rone. “Death Row Often Means a Long Life.” Los Angeles Times 6 Mar. 2005.
- “Violent Crime Control And Law Enforcement Act of 1994.” 3/8/95 < http://gopher.usdoj.gov/crime/crm_brf.html>
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