The Debate Over Capital Punishment in America, Essay Example
The ultimate punishment, the death penalty, has been a contentious subject for the latter half of the twentieth century and continues to be a point of disagreement in legal, political and social circles. Advocates and abolitionists alike have lobbied hard to garner support, most notably in the form of decisions by the United States Supreme Court. The Court itself has yet to hand down a decisive ruling, alternatively giving and taking away the latitude of the states to punish by death. Despite the constant tension, however, the death penalty remains legal many states. Yet, challenges to capital punishment abound; historically, these challenges have focused on whether the application of the death penalty is truly constitutional and have especially questioned the discretion given to sentencing bodies to make such a decision (van den Haag 731). In order to judge the merit of capital punishment, we must consider the several competing ends served by the punishments in a criminal justice system. The first is the belief that crime
makes the criminal, in some spiritual sense, unﬁt to live in society and renders the society he lives in unclean. The Bible tells us that murders should be put to death, argues van den Haag in The Collapse of the Case Against Capital Punishment (van den Haag 740). Another premise to consider is retribution, which states that the criminal is punished because he deserves it (Pojman 56). The final consideration must be whether future criminals are deterred from committing a capital offense because of the fear of the death penalty (Pojman 61). The debate about capital punishment is passionate and enduring. Context and circumstances matter. Who was the victim? What was done to him or her? Who was the perpetrator? Were there extenuating circumstances? Is he or she a sympathetic ﬁgure for some reason? What about contemporary mores and evolving standards of decency? This paper examines both sides of the argument, analyzing their respective strengths and weaknesses, and presents a case for the support of capital punishment.
OPPOSITION TO CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
Opponents of capital punishment question the success of the death penalty as prevention, contending that it is not the intensity of the pain that has the greatest impact on the mind, but its continuance. They argue that the perpetual slavery of imprisonment has the degree of severity necessary to deter even the most hardened and determined criminal (Pojman 61). Public arguments against capital punishment today are generally based on one of three claims: (1) capital punishment is immoral because all killing is immoral (Stevenson 97); (2) capital punishment is unjust because the death penalty is irrevocable (Nathanson 150); (3) capital punishment fails to deter capital crimes (Nathanson 162). Additionally, in his article Close to Death: Reflections on Race and Capital Punishment in America Bryan Stevenson writes, “…in recent years, media accounts of exonerations of death row inmates and reports about the unreliability of the capital punishment systems have begun to bring some of the realities of the death penalty to the public consciousness” (Stevenson 77). The possible execution of the innocent has been a perennial theme of death penalty opponents, but it has grown in prominent in public debates since the 1990s, when developments in DNA testing have made it possible in many cases where conviction rested on circumstantial evidence to establish that someone other than the accused was responsible for the crime (van den Haag 736). Opponents cite the disproportionate number of minorities and the poor receiving the death penalty compared to white and wealth respectively. Stephen Nathanson argues that because of the role that race plays in determining who receives the death penalty; capital punishment is unconstitutional (Nathanson 150).
SUPPORT FOR CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
One argument made in support of the death penalty is that it permanently removes the worst criminals from society. A dead criminal cannot commit additional crimes, either in prison or outside after escaping or being released (van den Haag 735). Furthermore, while opponents of capital punishment frequently stress that it costs more than life imprisonment; executions in the United States are relatively expensive precisely because of the costs attributable to lengthy appeals and delays in carrying out the sentence. These costs could be lowered by limiting appeals. Another argument by those in favor of the death penalty is that it is a very real punishment, not some attempt at rehabilitative treatment. A murderer subject to capital punishment suffers in direct proportion to the offense: “an eye for an eye, a life for a life” (Pojman 56). van den Haag rejects the claim that capital punishment is immoral because it allegedly is applied in a discriminatory fashion. He argues that misdistribution of any punishment among those who deserve it does not affect the justice or morality of the punishment itself. Because punishments are imposed on individuals, not on racial or ethnic groups, to van den Haag the relevant question is: does this individual deserve the punishment (van den Haag 733)? Retribution for murder is seen by many as a legitimate justiﬁcation for the death penalty. Pojman goes so far as to support capital punishment for offenses other than murder (Pojman 52, 53). In addition, the supporters of capital punishment point to its deterrent effects. While no statics exist that supports the death penalty as deterrent, many suggest that the fear of death may have caused potential violent offenders to think twice (van den Haag 735).
Should the death penalty be discarded as the punishment of a time now past, or retained because it has the same value that it always did? The argument in favor of capital punishment by Ernest van den Haag and Louis J. Pojman can be summarized with several points. Family members of the victim may take years to recover from the death of a loved one. Some may never recover. The death penalty can contribute to their recovery by providing a form of closure. A life sentence leaves the criminal alive to haunt the thoughts and memories of the grieving family. The death penalty provides ﬁnality (van den Haag 741). While prison time is an effective deterrent for some would-be criminals, for others, imprisonment has not only lost the ability it had to inspire fear but may, in fact, be an improvement over their precarious circumstances on the street. Does the death penalty in fact deter? Statistics cannot reveal the number of people who decided not to commit a capital offense because of the death penalty. Without it, even more serious crimes might be committed. A basic principle of fairness is that the penalty should ﬁt the crime. When someone commits a premeditated murder, it makes sense that the perpetrator should forfeit his life as well (Pojman 58). To death penalty proponents, support for the death penalty is part of an effort to have the criminal justice system place more emphasis on protecting the victim then the accused. What prevents them from murdering others while they are in prison? Threatening them with a longer sentence or with the loss of some privileges will not protect other prisoners and guards (Pojman 67). Does the death penalty discriminate against minorities and the poor? van den Haag argues that a just law is still just if it punishes the guilty and because many on death row are black is no justification to throw out the death penalty (van den Haag 733). As one looks at the arguments for and against the death penalty as presented by the four authors cited, the arguments against the death penalty are week compared to the arguments for it. Based on these arguments alone, this leads one to support the death penalty.
Nathanson, Stephen. “Does it Matter if the Death Penalty is Arbitrarily Administered?” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Spring, 1985), pp. 149-164.
Pojman, Louis P. Why the Death Penalty Is Morally Permissible. 29 October 2013, pp. 51-75.
Stevenson, Bryan. Close to Death: Reflections on Race and Capital Punishment in America. 29 October 2013, pp. 76-116.
van den Haag, Ernest. “The Collapse of the Case Against Capital Punishment.” The Philosophy of Law. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. 29 October 2013, pp. 731-743.
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