Is the Death Penalty a Deterrent to Future Crimes?
The most heinous of crimes are subject to the highest form of punishment – death penalty. Capital punishment has its share of supporters who believe in the merits of death penalty in fighting crime. On the other side of the coin are those who view the punishment as unconstitutional, barbaric, and just plain cruel. With the spate of mass shootings in the US, the issue of death penalty has had a resurgence in everyone’s consciousness. Many believe that the perpetrators deserve maximum penalty and the highest condemnation of all. This is clearly an emotional response, but it raises the question of whether death penalty is an effective way to deter prospective criminals. This essay aims to show two sides of the issue and argue that death penalty does not necessarily deter criminals from committing future crimes.
The main argument in support of death penalty is its perceived deterrent effect. In his study on deterrence in support of death penalty, van den Haag (1969) acknowledges that even though statistical results are inconclusive, capital punishment is likely to deter people from committing crimes because of fear of death, and more so if it is a death ordered by law. He states that death penalty permanently incapacitates the offender from committing future crimes. He highlights that it is the most feared form of punishment and because of its finality, it could deter prospective murderers who are not deterred by long-term imprisonment. He also puts more weight on saving the lives of prospective victims rather than preserving the lives of convicted murderers who may re-offend.
Decades after van den Haag’s study, Mocan and Gittings (2003) confirm that the death penalty has a deterrent effect. Based on their two controversial studies, they conclude that for each execution, five murders are prevented. Conversely, one commutation results in five murders. Further, Zimmerman’s (2004) research study using state-level data concludes that each execution results in 14 fewer murders. While statistics appear to strengthen the argument in favor of death penalty, they are just numbers that do not support actual crime rates. Anti-death penalty proponents offer numerous reasons why the death penalty should be abolished, including its perceived unconstitutionality and violation of human rights (Oggletree & Sarat, 2009). However, the strongest arguments are those that criticized the studies for their faulty methodologies, insufficient data and flawed assumptions (Liptak, 2007).
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The studies attempt to link executions with murder rate changes over time. They ask whether executions made a difference in the crime rate at a given period. While this is a valid research question, studies fail to take into account other variables that have direct effect on crime rate such as the effectiveness of the judicial system, demographic changes, and economic conditions. With that said, the idea that death penalty can be implemented without biases is completely misguided (Ogletree & Sarat, 2009). Critics add that the findings are skewed by data from a few jurisdictions, largely from Texas, hence, it is not representative of national data (Liptak, 2007). With so few actual executions, the data is thin and conclusions derived from it are considered weak and misleading.
In conclusion, it would be safe to say that there is no clear and indisputable evidence to suggest that the death penalty is an effective means to deter people from committing crimes or murderers from killing again. The ambiguous results of studies make the deterrence argument weak. They are not enough to justify executions. It is surprising how politicians continue to support death penalty instead of looking into more effective and reliable alternatives.
Lindsay, R. A. (2015) The Death Penalty Is Barbaric, Let’s Torture Instead! Capital Punishment and the Supermax Alternative [Online] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ronald-a-lindsay/the-death-penalty-is-barb_b_7215568.html [Accessed December 11, 2015]
Liptak, A. (2007) Does Death Penalty Save Lives? A New Debate [Online] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/18/us/18deter.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all [Accessed December 11, 2015]
Mocan, H. N. and Gittings, R. J. (2003) Getting Off Death Row: Commuted Sentences and the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment, 46 Journal of Law and Economics 453.
Ogletree, C.J. and Sarat, A. (eds.) (2009) The Road to Abolition? The Future of Capital Punishment in the United. New York: New York University Press.
Van den Haag, E. (1969) On Deterrence and the Death Penalty. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 60(2).
Zimmerman, P. R. (2004) State Executions, Deterrence and ‘the Incidence of Murder. Journal of Applied Economics 163.
Capital Punishment Essay - Death Penalty as a Deterrent to Crime
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The Death Penalty as a Deterrent to Crime
Brutally murdered by a man no one would have suspected, an innocent twelve-year old girl was taken from her mother. Although, this poor girl's mother was stricken with grief and anger, she did not wish for this murderer to die for her own sake, but to protect other innocent girls like her own. She sat and watched, staring into the eyes of the man who had killed her daughter. She watched as they inserted the needle containing the fluid that would take his life.
Is it morally unjust to execute criminals after they have committed a certain horrific crime upon another innocent victim? Until mid-twentieth century, this had been the tradition of practice, dating back to ancient times. In the United States especially, capital punishment is a hot topic of discussion and controversy. It is a difficult issue with many different points of view. Some are pro death penalty, others against the death penalty, and yet others with mixed feelings. So many different questions originate when the topic of the death penalty arises. Some of these are cost, sentencing equality, religious beliefs, the possibility of executing the innocent, and deterrence. These are just a few of the heated issues to consider. The death penalty is deterring crime, showing that individuals in the United States will be held responsible for their actions.
Some of the first death penalty laws can be dated as far back as the Eighteenth Century. This was a time when death was the only punishment for all crimes. These death sentences were done by means of beheading, drowning, beating to death, and burning alive, among others. From 1823 to 1837, the death penalty was eliminated, in Britain, for over 100 of the 222 crimes punishable by death. In 1967, after many legal challenges through the courts, executions were stopped in the United States. Finally, the Supreme Court placed a suspension on capital punishment in 1972, although later allowed it in 1977, under certain conditions (Changes).
Cost plays a major role in the death penalty. Opposing views say that it is far more expensive to execute someone than to give them life without parole. On the other hand, many others disagree. It has been estimated that life without parole cases will cost 1.2 million to 3.6 million dollars more than that equivalent to using the death penalty. On average, a life without parole sentence lasts thirty to forty years, while the annual cost of imprisonment is 40,000 to 50,000 dollars for each prisoner or more, each year (Lowe).
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Deterrent Death Penalty Capital Punishment Crime Year Old Hot Topic Innocent Victim
Cost increases are based on a few major points. The increases in prison cost include judicial decisions regarding prison conditions and the national inflation rate. Life without parole sentences are considerably more expensive in the medical aspect of cost, including huge costs of geriatric care (Kramer). Another major cost is the possibility of injury or death caused by a fellow violent inmate. Life without parole inmates are more likely to be violent because they do not fear additional punishment, other than the possibility of losing privileges. Death row inmates may be inclined to do the same, but the difference is that they may only be imprisoned on average six years, verses fifty years for the life without parole sentence. Death penalty cases prove to be significantly less expensive, than the death penalty equivalent life without parole cases (Lowe).
There are many questions on the limitations of the death penalty. Should race, mental illness, and age play a part in the deciding, if an individual should receive the death penalty? In 2001, 1,969 prisoners under sentence of death were white, 1,538 were African American, twenty-eight were American Indian, and thirty-three were Asian. These statistics only prove that these sentences were not racist (Bureau of Justice Statistics). However, mental illness, should be a factor to be considered during sentencing. Each individual case will be different, and it is up to the jury and judge to come up with a fair sentence. In 1992, the United States ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It states that the death penalty not be used on those who committed their crimes when they were younger than the age of eighteen. However, the U.S. reserved the right to execute juvenile offenders (Changes). The average age of arrest was twenty-eight in 2001; two percent of inmates were age seventeen or younger, and the youngest inmate under death sentence was nineteen (Bureau of Justice Statistics). Juveniles who are of an age to understand right and wrong should be punished according to their actions.
As with all controversial subjects, the argument of religion is very touchy. In the Bible teachings, we are told to obey God's will and uphold the laws of man. Man has a god given right to make choices in how to live life (Bible). Laws are made to govern the way that people can live together in a society. Those who fail to live according to law must realize they have made a choice and will suffer the consequences. Some people might argue that God is the only one who should take a life but there are those on death row who have claimed that it was God who instructed them to kill. Others such as members of the Taliban believe that by killing, they are becoming closer to God. Obviously, the ruling of God's will cannot be proven. In this country, we have the right to religious freedom so religion should not be a factor in death sentencing.
What about the risk of wrongfully executing an innocent person? One cannot say that it is not possible or that it has never happened, nothing is perfect. All good things come with a price to pay. Take into account that a far more extensive amount of innocent people have been saved because of the death penalty than the supposedly twenty-three innocent people, in this century, who were wrongfully executed. There has been no hard evidence found that this country has ever executed an innocent person in the past century (Congressional).
There is no doubt that keeping murderers alive and letting them walk among the innocent is far more dangerous than that putting them to death. Take into account that up to 13,000 American citizens are murdered each year by released and paroled criminals! (Lowe) Put this example into perspective. It is said that the death penalty should be taken away because of the risk of wrongful executions of the innocent, but if Americans used this theory for other instances what would be the outcome? Take for instance the fact that, on average, 45,000 people die from car accidents each year (Lowe). Driving is something many Americans take for granted, but surely would say, improves their quality of life. America accepts the risks and deaths caused by accidents but somehow cannot accept the risks and deaths caused by capital punishment. Now, can one not argue that removing convicted murderers from society would also improve the quality of lives? (Messerli)
Dudley Sharp, of the criminal-justice reform group "Justice For All," states, "From 1995 to 2000, executions averaged seventy-one per year, a 21,000 percent increase over the 1966-1980 period. The murder rate dropped from a high of 10.2 (per 100,000) in 1980 to 5.7 in 1999, a forty-four percent reduction. The murder rate is now at its lowest level since 1966." (Lowe) The murder rate being at its lowest support beliefs that having the death penalty lowers the crime rate.
One argument says that states without the death penalty have lower crime rates than those that do. One would have to take into account the population, number and size of cities, in each state to argue this point. It makes sense to say that larger cities with more people in them and states with more cities in them will have higher crime rates. So how can one say that the death penalty does not deter potential murders? If murderers are sentenced to death and executed, possible murderers will think twice before killing, for fear of loosing their own life (The Death Penalty Prevents). A punishment that is feared is more likely to deter a potential criminal, and people fear death more than anything else. If criminals were immune to fear then one might say that they are inhuman. Fear is an instinct that kicks in when one is faced with a deadly force. In this case, could the claim be true, that criminals do not fear death because they do not take the time to think about the consequences of their acts?
Horrific crimes of violence are in the news every day. American citizens are given a sense of protection by the enforcement of laws. It is known that capital punishment has deterred potential criminals and fewer in lockup saves taxpayers money. In most cases, innocent people are not executed nor has the argument of racism proved to be valid. The only proof that we have, is the fact that America is a safer country because of the death penalty. It shows criminals that they will be held responsible for their actions. Some of the states that do not allow the death penalty may be putting their citizens at risk by allowing convicted murderers to live. Just as it gave that poor mother ease, knowing that there was one less murderer roaming the streets looking for his next victim.
Bureau of Justice Statistics. "Summary Findings." Jan. 8, 2003. Oct. 22,