The capital punishment debate is a complicated and divisive issue, with America's views controversially divided between moral justifications, and economical and social evidences. The majority of the public favors the death penalty, at 71 percent, but it seems their choice has little basis on accurate data regarding it's effectiveness in lowering crime rates in the U.S., or it's financial implication's on the taxpayer's wallet (Gallup Poll 2004). Because evidence proves capital punishment is not beneficial to the U.S. economy, and analytical research has been consistent in proving it does not deter crime, we as advisors will recommend a policy that bans capital punishment in America. International trends have shown that the abolishment of the death penalty has been beneficial in their society, and as a western nation, America has fallen behind most European countries that have already reaped the benefits by banning capital punishment. Our research will examine the history and evolution of capital punishment and how it has shaped capital punishment practices today, in addition to the general public’s opinion, its economic practicality, and its effectiveness in deterring crime. After analytically reviewing the following issues, we will then illustrate a clear recommendation that we believe will benefit America.
History of the Death Penalty:
In order to fully understand the divisiveness of this issue today, we must first examine its historic and legal background. The first recorded execution in the United States took place in 1608 under the offense of espionage. However, in 1612, the Divine, Moral and Marshall Laws made the death penalty legal for minor offenses such as “stealing grapes, killing chickens, and trading with the Indians” (“History of the Death Penalty, Part I”). The first reform of the death penalty occurred when Philadelphia Attorney General William Bradford led Pennsylvania to repeal the death penalty for all cases except for first-degree murder in 1794. Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty in 1846, followed shortly after by Wisconsin and Rhode Island. Although six states completely outlawed the death penalty from 1907 to 1917, five of them reinstated it again by 1920 because of a panic over the Russian Revolution and World War I. Throughout Prohibition and the Great Depression in the 1930s, there was an average of 167 executions per year—more than any other decade in U.S. history (“History of the Death Penalty, Part I”).
From 1973 to 1976, the death penalty was banned in the U.S. as a result of Furman v. Georgia. The arbitrariness and inconsistencies of the death penalty were pointed out, and were constituted as “cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments” (Supreme Court Collection). However, Gregg v. Georgia lifted this de facto suspension in 1976. In 1986, Ford v. Wainwright declared execution of the mentally ill to be unconstitutional, and in 2002 Atkins v. Virginia overturned the 1989 ruling of Penry v. Linaugh, which held the execution of persons with mental retardation was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment. In 2005, the case of Roper v. Simmons ruled capital punishment for those who committed their crime while under the age of eighteen to be unconstitutional (Supreme Court Collection).
Currently, there are no death penalty statutes in twelve states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico (this does not include New York or Kansas, where the death penalty has been declared unconstitutional). It should be noted that hanging is still legal in Washington and New Hampshire, and in Delaware if the prisoner was sentenced before 1986. The firing squad is legal in Oklahoma and Utah, and a prisoner could also still be subject to the electric chair or gas chamber in fourteen states (“State By State Information”). The last use of the gas chamber occurred in 1999, and the last use of both hanging and the firing squad was in 1996. Historically, much more primitive and painful methods have been used, such as beheading, crucifixion, and being burnt at the stake (“History of the Death Penalty, Part I”). The last public execution was a hanging in 1936 in Kentucky (Williams 2005). Today, executions take place in private with only those invited able to view its proceedings.
Presently, there are five different methods of execution being implemented in the United States: lethal injection (which is used in 37 of the 38 states which allow the death penalty), electrocution (in Nebraska), gas chamber, hanging, and the firing squad. Lethal injection has become the standard form of execution, and from 2001, only 3 out of 273 executions have been by a different method (“State By State Information”). Although lethal injection is the most popular form of execution today and in the foreseeable future, some question whether it is as painless as it appears. In 1985, the court case of Chaney v. Heckler referred to "known evidence concerning lethal injection which strongly indicates that such drugs pose a substantial threat of torturous pain to persons being executed" (Johnson 2000). Dosage errors, difficulty locating veins in which to insert the needle, and medical equipment malfunctions all add to the controversy of this seemingly painless form of capital punishment.
Argument of Sides
Before we take a look at the statistical evidence of economics, deterrence, or international implications, it is important to understand the nation’s public opinion on the issue and their reasons for supporting or opposing the death penalty. Beliefs differ significantly by various issues, the most significant moral arguments being those of human rights and religion. The following will be discussed throughout the opposing arguments.
Overview of opposing arguments
There are two sides to the debate of whether or not capital punishment should be used as a means to punish someone found guilty of a capital crime. A key objection to the death penalty is based on the notion that the issue is “wrong” by nature, because it is a violation of a right to life (The Economist). Opponents’ “value the dignity and sacredness” of all human life, upholding the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has a right to life (Flynn 1996). Opponents generally advocate rehabilitation and cite wrongful convictions as reasons against capital punishment, and additionally feel that society’s interests are better served by lacing criminals in jail, where they can do no further harm (Post).
Overview of proponent arguments
Proponents of capital punishment believe in their right to administer the death penalty based on the grounds of benefiting society. They claim that they value life the most because they implement the highest penalty for those who take the life of another, and believe murders should not be afforded the same rights as a “good” human being (Lowe). Thus they believe that the death penalty acts as an effective deterrent to crime.
Religion: American opinion seems largely governed by moral beliefs, as according to “Attitudes towards the death penalty for persons convicted of murder” which states, in 2002, 67% of Protestants and 68% of Catholics polled favored the death penalty (Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2003, 144-5). Although the Bible preaches conflicting messages, the majority of the population tends to justify capital punishment with the Bible’s lex talionis, which calls for retributive justice and an “an eye for an eye” ideology. “American Public Opinion about Religion” states that according to a Gallup poll in 2003, more than 80% of Americans identify themselves to be Christian, 2% as Jewish, 2% as Mormon, and 10% don’t have a religious preference (Carroll). Thus it becomes indicative that personal beliefs play a strong role in deciding a side in the capital punishment debate.
Overall Public Opinion
In America’s entirety, 71 percent of the population favored the death penalty in 2004, up from 64 percent in the previous year. However, within the past 5 years the percentage has been unchanging (Gallup Poll News Service). Support for life imprisonment, an alternative to the death penalty, has been higher in the past five years than anytime from 1985-2000, at 46 percent (Gallup Poll 2004). When asked about its morality, 65 percent decided it was “morally acceptable”, while 28 percent called it “morally wrong”. However, further studies to show that the public makes exceptions to capital punishment in different circumstances. According to a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll of 900 voters nationwide conducted in June 2001, two-thirds of Americans oppose the execution of mentally retarded murderers (Polling Report). Sixty-three percent believe in the possibility of a wrongful conviction according to the Gallup Poll, and sixty-three percent believe racial inequities make capital punishment unfair on a local level, according to a study commissioned by Illinois’ governor, George Ryan (“The Death Penalty - American Attitudes”).
Based on the following information, although it appears that the majority of the population is for capital punishment, the public tends to be lenient towards the matter with regards to mental illness, youth, or wrongful convictions. For the most part, Americans are uninformed when it comes to matters of deterrence and economics: “On the one hand, belief that capital punishment acts as a deterrent has fallen significantly in recent years. On the other hand, deterrence is still cited as the strongest support for the death penalty's fundamental fairness” (“The Death Penalty - American Attitudes”). Although it may seem the public primarily views capital punishment as a debate rooted in personal and moral beliefs, in evaluating and developing a position on capital punishment, the importance of it’s social, economical, and international implications should not be undermined. Therefore, in the following paragraphs, we will analytically discuss the aforementioned issues that make this debate of capital punishment such a challenging matter.
Disregarding the moral themes of capital punishment, next, we will focus on the economical feasibility of the United States upholding the death penalty in its current state, as opposed to resorting to life imprisonment. According to a poll that reports the reasons capital punishment is favored for people convicted of murder from 1991 to 2003, about 10% to 20% of those for the death penalty believe that the death penalty “save[s] taxpayers money” and is less costly than life imprisonment, probably due to the fact that life imprisonment would require that taxpayers feed, clothe, and house inmates. (The Gallup Organization) However studies and statistics from various sources reveal that capital punishment is in fact more costly than life imprisonment. According to a study done by the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy in Duke University, “The death penalty costs North Carolina $2.16 million per execution over the costs of a non-death penalty murder case with a sentence of imprisonment for life" (Cook). According to the Lodi News Sentinel, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation finds that “only about 1% of homicides in the state are tried as capital cases, but those cases cost taxpayers two to three times more than non-capital cases” because the Supreme Court tries to make certain that only the guilty are put to death since death is irreversible by “entitling greater than due process protections” (Paternoster 139).In fact, the death penalty costs $114 million of taxpayers’ money for 645 inmates on death row in California, thus costing approximately $176, 740 per inmate annually whereas incarceration of an inmate in state prison costs about $34,150 (Lodi News Sentinel). Purely based on the economics of the death penalty it is more pragmatic to opt for life incarceration.
Deterrence is another key argument that capital punishment supporters advocate, however we have analyzed numerous studies indicating the death penalty’s lack of effectiveness in lowering murder rates in the United States. According to the FBI’s “Crime in the United States”, murder rates per 100,000 population from 1995-2001 have significantly dropped. Proponents of the issue attribute this to the success of the death penalty (W. Tucker, "Yes, the Death Penalty Deters," Wall St. Journal, June 21, 2002), however, statistics show that within the past decade the gap of murder rates between states with the death penalty and those without have dramatically grown. By 2000, the murder rate in death penalty states was 35% higher than the rate in states without the death penalty. In 2001, the gap between non-death penalty states and states with the death penalty grew further, reaching 37% (DPIC). Additionally, a 2000 survey by The New York Times finds that states without the death penalty have lower homicide rates than those that do. They report that ten of the twelve states without the death penalty have homicide rates below the national average, while half of the states with the death penalty have rates above. “During the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty has been 48% - 101% higher than in states without the death penalty.” (New York Times, 9/22/00). If we take a look at crime rates geographically, data continues to support the trend of lower murder rates in non-death penalty states. For example, Virginia, a high-execution state, has homicide rates much higher than their non-death penalty neighbor, West Virginia. This data shows that capital punishment has no effect on deterring crime.
Furthermore, public opinion polls reveal growing skepticism regarding capital punishment’s effectiveness in deterring crime. In 2004, 62 percent of people polled believe it does not deter crime, a jump from 41 percent in 1991. Additionally, a growing number of people favor life sentence without parole over the death penalty at 46 percent, up from 44 percent the prior year (Gallup Poll News Service, June 2, 2004). In light of such evidence, it may be gathered that capital punishment is not a deterrent in crime, and many of the proponents’ arguments of the issue are based on inaccurate and flawed grounds. Many analytical researches have devalued DP advocate data concerning deterrence citing them as being “fraught with technical and conceptual errors, including inappropriate methods of statistical analysis, failures to consider all relevant factors that drive murder rates, missing data on key variables in key states, weak to non-existent tests of concurrent effects of incarceration, and other deficiencies” (Fagan). Therefore, in the matter of deterrence, it seems capital punishment is not successful. According to the Lodi News-Sentinel, a better method of deterrence could be to use “the money spent on death sentences [instead], on police, mental health and child abuse prevention than on executions”; a way that can benefit society more directly.
Although there is no clear cut U.S. statistics that show that abolishing capital punishment lowers crime rates, international trends imply that such may be true abroad. “Canada reports that the number of homicides in 2001 was 23% lower than the number of homicides in 1975, the year before the death penalty was abolished” (“Homicide Rates”) . In addition, homicide rates in Canada are generally three times lower than homicide rates in the U.S.(IssuesDirect.com, 8/4/02). Capital punishment is usually practiced in poor, undemocratic, authoritarian countries, which use the death penalty as a means of oppression. According to Amnesty International, Japan and the U.S. are compared to repressive, underdeveloped countries like North Korea and Afghanistan, as the only developed democratic countries that practice the death penalty (Death Sentences and Executions in 2004). The United States’ retention of capital punishment has felt the influence of international practices. For example, the 2002 case of Atkins v. Virginia, which ruled that the execution of the mentally retarded unconstitutional, was, according to Richard C. Dieter from the Foreign Service Journal, “marked the first major removal of a whole class of inmates from death row in many years. The international community, through resolutions at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and in other forums, had called for just such reform on many occasions.” Support for the death penalty still holds high in Asia and some Middle Eastern and African countries but the United States’ strongest allies, North America and the European Union, have unabashedly renounced the death penalty. Dieter says that the recent pressure is finally having a significant impact on the U.S. due to the fact that “the world is more interconnected than ever before. Interests of trade, the promotion of human rights, fighting terrorism, and international development, all require greater cooperation among countries” (Foreign Service Journal). It looks as though the U.S. may be on the path to becoming abolitionist as well.
Based on the analysis of the evidence we have gathered on capital punishment regarding its failing economical efficiency and effectiveness, among other variables, we find the best policy choice to make for your administration is to de-legalize capital punishment. History shows that the methods of execution have evolved from public, torturous acts, to private, seemingly painless procedures. However, according to Chaney v. Heckler, today’s most common practice of lethal injection still has many of the same criminalized effects of previously outlawed brutal executions. Therefore, the claim that capital punishment is no longer cruel does not hold to be true, and further encourages the banning of capital punishment.
Contrary to the public belief that the death penalty is less costly than life incarceration, it is in fact economically more cost effective not to execute criminals. Furthermore, there has been no conclusive evidence showing that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to crime and since national crime rates show that abolitionist states experience lower murder rates than their counterparts, we believe that this holds a strong indication that the ban of capital punishment could lead to a national decline in murder rates. Both the European Union and our North American allies have already outlawed capital punishment and in efforts to maintain our harmonious international relations, we believe the United States should continue to evolve with the rest of the world’s interests as the nature of society changes.
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