Should the death penalty be abolished?
With global trends since World War II abolishing the death penalty in most countries, an ongoing debate in the U.S. questions whether capital punishment is justified for very serious crimes or whether a death sentence in inherently inhumane and immoral.
Rise of the Issue
From a worldwide perspective, the United States stands alone among Western, industrialized nations with its retention of the death penalty. Within the U.S., capital punishment was ruled unconstitutional (“cruel and unusual”) in 1972 by the Supreme Court, only to be reinstated in 1976. Currently, only certain federal crimes earn the death penalty, and 27 states provide for it.
Federal executions had come to a complete halt for two decades, until Trump’s administration revived them in 2019, with cases that came to be known as the “Trump executions”. After such a long period of execution inactivity, this sudden change caused the debate around the death penalty to re-emerge. Since then, the new administration has taken the opposite approach to capital punishment, with Joe Biden having promised during his campaign to try to pass legislation against the death penalty, both at the federal and state level. Since he came to power, cases with pending capital charges have been dropped.
But despite growing concerns that innocent persons may be put to death, a majority of Americans still consistently favor keeping it as an option.
Constitution Allows for Death Penalty
The consensus among scholars was that the writers of the constitution intended that the new nation could establish a death penalty, and the first Congress in 1790 established a federal death penalty for certain crimes.
Michigan Abolishes Capital Punishment
Michigan became the first English-speaking jurisdiction in the world to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason.
Supreme Court Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional
In a split decision, two justices declared the death penalty unconstitutional in all cases, while three attacked it as applied arbitrarily and discriminatorily.
Supreme Court Reaffirms Constitutionality of Death Penalty
Satisfied that Georgia’s revised death penalty statute adequately addressed issues of arbitrariness and discrimination, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is constitutional.
First U.S. Execution in 10 Years
Gary Gilmore, convicted of and admitting to two murders in Utah, became the first person to be executed since the Supreme Court ruling reinstating the death penalty.
The ‘Trump Executions’
After decades of very few federal executions, thirteen prisoners were sentenced to death and executed under the Trump administration between 2019 and 2021.
Right to Life
Proponents of capital punishment believe that death penalty for someone who has taken the lives of others is not cruel or unjust, while opponents believe that every life should be protected, even the lives people who pose a threat to society.
For those in favor of the death penalty, permanently removing a dangerous criminal is a necessary guarantee for the safety and well-being of all, while its detractors argue that innocent people get killed for crimes they did not commit.
While some believe that the fear of capital punishment serves as a deterrent for crime and as a means to establish more order in society, others think that in a criminal system riddled with inequality such a punishment only reinforces injustices based on bias and discrimination.
There are inequalities in who gets death penalty convictions.
The death penalty, like other aspects of the criminal justice system, is riddled with biases and inequalities towards certain part of the population, and especially towards people of color.
The death penalty is very costly.
Studies have found that the average death penalty case costs $1.26 million, when on average a non-death penalty case costs around $740.000.
It is cruel and inhumane.
Sentencing someone to death, however high the crime this person committed, remains something that is ethically debatable for many. Some also argue that the psychological and physical pain that these criminals go through until their death is cruel and inhumane.
It does not deter crime.
The U.S. continues to have a much higher murder rate than other industrialized nations, many of which do not have the death penalty.
There is no margin of error possible.
Unlike almost any other judicial outcome, an execution cannot be reversed in the event of new exculpatory evidence, meaning that in the instance of an error, an innocent person’s life will have been taken.
Capital punishment is only as harsh as the crime that has been committed.
Death penalty convictions are only meant for highly dangerous criminals who have ended other people’s lives.
The death penalty deters people from committing capital crimes.
The death penalty serves as a reminder of the irrevocable consequence of taking someone else’s life, and as such, deters criminals from committing capital crimes.
It protects society from dangerous individuals.
Because of its irreversibility, the death penalty guarantees that criminals who pose a high risk to society’s safety are permanently removed.
It provides justice for the victim’s family.
Knowing that the person who killed a loved one has received capital punishment can be perceived as a form of retribution and reparation for the family involved.
It is cheaper than life incarceration.
Though death penalty cases can be expensive in the short run, in the long run, it is far more costly to place a person in prison for life.