Capital Punishment in America
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Capital punishment or the death penalty as it is commonly termed is of all the penal practices, the most controversial. This is not at all surprising, concerning the fact that it involves taking a human life. Because it is the most severe of all sentences, there have been countless efforts to abolish the death penalty, and these efforts have proved effective in most of the industrialized nations, with the exception of Japan and the United States of America. It is very important to know the issues surrounding capital punishment, because it occurs in the country we live in and affects us even if we are not on death row. Because capital punishment occurs in just about half of the world, it would be difficult to talk about all of the circumstances and issues of capital punishment in each country, and because of this, the focus of this analysis will be the United States of America.
It is difficult to describe the death penalty without discussing the methods used to carry out this punishment. In the past there have been various means to accomplishing it. For instance, crucifixion, drowning, burning, impaling, hangings and shootings have all been used as methods to inflicting a legal death upon an individual. However, most of these have been dubbed inhumane and therefore eliminated in most lands. So, in efforts to "civilize" executing a person, new techniques have been developed. For example, in France the guillotine was created as a quick and civilized means for meting out death as an alternative to beheading the criminals with a sword, which was sometimes too dull and required that the executer swing multiple times before the job was complete.
But today in the United States, capital punishment is typically met out by lethal gas, injection or electrocution. Three states execute by hanging, and another three do so by a firing squad. In the United States, there is a distribution of authority. On the federal level, the death penalty is provided for over forty crimes including premeditated murder, drug-trafficking and treason. But the federal government allows for the individual states to define crimes and choose their own penalties for crimes committed. Twelve of these fifty states have abolished the death penalty entirely.
Currently, in the US there are about 3,500 people on death row. California heads the list with 603 offenders awaiting their deaths and it is possible that by the end of the year another man, Scott Peterson, may join these ranks.
The reason that the numbers are so high is there is a necessary gap between conviction and the actual carrying out of the sentence. Usually a criminal will wait a decade or two before he is actually executed. There are two chief reasons for that: the first being that executions cannot be immediate because this would not allow for the appeals process and the second called the "exhaustion of remedies". This is a legal term meaning that the defendant is required to finish appeals at the state level before the case even goes to the federal courts. This provides the state governments time to correct any mistakes or problems before turning the case over to the federal governments.
Also it is extremely expensive to put criminals to death. Proponents of the abolishment of death penalty argue that it costs way more money to execute a criminal than to keep them in prisons for life. On average it costs about $3.3 million dollars to execute a convict while it cost only $805,000 to keep an inmate in prison for fifty years. So it would be extremely costly to put all the convicts to death at once.
As I have mentioned previously, the first noteworthy movements towards the eradication of the death penalty were in the 1700's during the Age of Enlightenment. During this time, men such as Voltaire, Beccaria, Adam Smith and Thomas Paine wrote books and essays describing the injustices of capital punishment. However, these men did not get the responses they wanted and some even died because of expressing their opinions. In more recent times, there have also been efforts to change the law. For example, in 1972 Furman v. Georgia was a major case that changed the death penalty laws in the US forever. This was a case where three men claimed their 8th and 14th amendment rights were violated when they were condemned to death by the states of Georgia and Texas. The Supreme Court with a 5-4 vote declared that capital punishment was unconstitutional at that time. This forced the states to rewrite their death penalty laws to guard against discrimination and bias. In 1977 the new laws were completed and into effect when Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in Utah.
As aforementioned, there has been an ongoing debate over the death penalty in America. The chief argument for death sentences is that it can be used as a deterrent. Deterrence is the idea that executing murderers will decrease the rates of homicide by discouraging future murderers for fear
that they themselves will suffer the penalty of death. This is what is called "general deterrence". The second type of deterrence is called "specific deterrence" because if that murderer is killed, he will no longer be able to kill again. According to USA Snapshots, who conducted a study in 1984 this is correct. However, researchers now say that it may actually increase homicide rates. The term for this is "brutalization theory" meaning that by suggesting or legitimizing killing, it actually increases murder.
People in opposition to capital punishment think that a better solution is to make the murderer sit in a prison cell for life, with no possibility for parole. These persons feel the killer should have to suffer in their cell, for the rest of the life thinking about the crime they have committed, instead of taking the easy way out. People for the death penalty say that this is unjust for the convict to be allowed to live after they have taken away another life. This brings us into another argument for the death penalty: retribution. Some people feel that the victim's family deserves to know that the person that killed their loved one, suffers death also. The argument opposite this is that retribution is only for revenge. Revenge is a feeling, and death should not be taken lightly, especially because someone's feelings.
Then there is always the possibility that a person could be wrongly convicted. According to the Bureau of Justice, from 1976-2003 there have been 885 executions. There are new statistics showing that out of every 7 convictions, there is 1 wrong conviction. That is a staggering fourteen percent. One hundred and nine people have been exonerated on DNA evidence alone according to Barry Sheck, an attorney opposed to capital punishment. Advocates for maintaining the death penalty say that the number is small and it is more important to execute the other 86% of people who have committed the crimes, in order to preserve the lives of others at risk of becoming one of their victims.
I personally do not know exactly where I stand on this issue. I do believe that people who commit heinous crimes such as murder should have to pay for their crimes, but I think in most cases it is more of a punishment for them to have to spend their life in a six-by-nine jail cell, reflecting on the fact that they have killed someone else, denying them the right to life. But then for those who have killed several people without any remorse and who are likely to kill other inmates in prison, I feel that they should not have the right to live. Although I am not completely sure how I feel about capital punishment, I do however think that it should be reexamined, and used only in cases where it is likely the convict will kill other inmates in prison.
As you can see, the death penalty is a highly controversial issue that probably will not be resolved for a while. But it is a good idea to know the facts of the death penalty, including the circumstances in which it is administered, the methods of which it is met out by, the costs of this extreme punishment, and the arguments in the debate over it, because your opinion only matters if your knowledge is accurate, and so knowledge is power.
"Capital Punishment." Encarta , 2003. CD-ROM.
Capital Punishment Statistics. 14 Nov. 2004. U.S. Dept. of Justice. 28
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The Economics of Captial Punishment. 1998. 28 Nov. 2004