Capital punishment has been a punishment reserved for the most serious crimes in almost all societies. It is based on the concept of "an eye for an eye," meaning that the punishment should fit the crime. This is a view that is held in many societies today, including our own. Those who support the death penalty insist that it is a better deterrent to violent crime than the alternative, life in prison. I argue, however, that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent, that it is based on revenge, and that it is inhumane, cruel, and has no place in a moral, civilized society.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1970's declared the death penalty unconstitutional as it was used in many states. The states then changed their laws to make the death penalty more agreeable to the court. In 1972, the Court upheld these new laws. Since the re-enactment of the death penalty, more than 500 executions have been carried out. However, Matthew Stephens points out that "there is no proof that shows murder has declined in any of the states in which it is being used." The United Nations has found that "research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment and such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming." In 1975, Canada abolished its death penalty. Crime statistics since then indicate that the murder rate has actually fallen by 27%. In the United States, there is no significant difference in the crime rates of states that use the death penalty and states that do not (these states do not have the death penalty: Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, DC, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, West Virginia, Maine). Why is there no difference? Because criminals who are willing to take another life are not concerned about consequences. Real deterrence comes from having cops on the street. That is the first thing that is done anytime a state or city attempts to lower its crime rate.
Since there is no proof that the death penalty is a deterrence, then continuing the death penalty in the hope that future crimes will be prevented is irrational. Therefore, the death penalty must not be an attempt at prevention, but an act of revenge. I ask you, should the laws and criminal justice system of a civilized society be based on revenge? Should such a punishment be associated with a free society? My answer, and I hope yours as well, is and ought to be, "no." We pride ourselves on being the freest nation in the world and the proud bearer of the torch of civilization, but our cruelty and vindictiveness often get in the way. I don't mean to preach today, but I think it's obvious that if we want revenge, then that should be left up to God. If we murder the murderer, how are we any better than him?
A more civil punishment is life in prison. Some argue that the death penalty is cheaper than life in prison, but I am horrified that money should become a central argument in a moral issue like this. Stephen Nathanson, a professor of philosophy at Northeastern University, argues that "the prospect of life imprisonment is so dreadful that increasing the penalty for murder from life imprisonment to death would not provide any additional discouragement." Using life in prison instead of the death penalty solves the moral question, as well as the problem of the accidental execution of an innocent person. No matter how fool-proof we try to make the death penalty, it is still possible for an innocent person to die by the hand of the state. The purpose of incarceration is to deter crime, to punish and reform the criminal, or at least to remove him from society. Life imprisonment provides this to the same degree as the death penalty. Let's face it, life in prison is a death penalty, only we won't be the ones taking the life. Now, when I say life in prison, I do not mean a resort prison where the criminal is given cable TV and conjugal visits. If you take the life of another in a manner worthy of capital punishment, you will instead spend the rest of your days doing hard labor. When you are not working, you will be confined to a small cell with only a bed, a mirror, and a Bible.
Throughout this century, there has been a movement to find more humane ways of execution. We have moved from hanging, to the electric chair, to gas chambers, and now to lethal injection. However, there is no humane way of killing someone. Have we overlooked this? Do we think that removing the death penalty would make us soft? I don't believe that life imprisonment is soft. I believe that we should be very tough on crime, however, there are moral problems to some punishments that should not be ignored. Our job is not to dream up more humane methods of killing people, it is compassion. The death penalty is undoubtedly morally wrong, and should be abolished.
Wekesser, Carol, ed. The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints.