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The false hope of the death penalty

Pop Quiz: What do Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and the United States have in common?

They all systematically kill citizens who break the law.

Of course they aren’t alone. Sudan, Uganda, Pakistan and Swaziland are our fellow compatriots in this ghastly fraternity of 70 countries.

The goal of institutional punishment is part correction, part restitution, and part community protection. Violators of the law are subject to sanctions in an attempt to dispense justice, that is to correct the wrong committed in a meaningful way, prevent it from happening again, and in the process remove harmful individuals from society.

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the death penalty is not an appropriate punishment for the rape of a child. This ruling reflects largely what the judicial process of our nation has already decided. As the article in the Times states,  “Not since 1964 has anyone been executed in the United States for a crime other than murder.”

While I happen to oppose the death penalty unilaterally, the idea of killing child rapists sounds appealing at first glimpse. The despicable nature of the crime and the irreparable harm done to children causes something in my normally peace-loving nature to cry out with vengeance with the mob.  But this knee-jerk reaction is short-sided. What I really want is assurance that this won’t happen ever again, or, at the very least, it will occur with far less frequency.

Systematically killing the perpetrators one by one sounds like the literal way to eliminate the problem and “protect” our children. But if preventing child rape is really what this debate is about, then the death penalty shouldn’t even be a consideration. New Orleans and Houston rank as the second and fifteenth leading cities for murder. Louisiana and Texas also rank among the highest in number of executions per state.

Since 1976, Texas has executed four times more inmates than the next leading state, Virginia, and four hundred times that of Wyoming. It’s painfully clear that the death penalty fails to deter crime. While several cities in Texas have less crime (Austin, Plano), that likely has more to do with the socioeconomic status of residents than the deterring factor of the death penalty. As the Death Penalty Information Center reports, “The murder rate in non-death penalty states has remained consistently lower than the rate in states with the death penalty, and the gap has grown since 1990.”

I oppose the death penalty not only on moral grounds, but because it fails to prevent crime. Instead of thinking of harsher punishments, we need to ask ourselves is why are grown men raping children? Where has our society failed? How can we address the root of this problem instead of reacting to the end result? These questions may be harder to answer, but they are the ones that will actually save lives.

I believe the true impetus behind capital punishment is far less noble than the call of justice or the desire to protect children. We want revenge. We want to inflict pain on others to make them feel as badly as their victims did. This isn’t exactly a foreign concept. It’s human nature at its worst, and, if left unchecked, it will result in breeding hatred and, ironically, crime. We already lock up more than 2 million of our own citizens—the most in the world. Our great love affair with punishment may look prettier than the public hangings of our forefathers, but it’s no less uncivilized.

Amnesty International reports that 135 countries have abolished the death penalty—countries like Norway, Sweden, Italy, France, and Australia. If you ask me, they make far better bedfellows than our current company.

9 thoughts on “The false hope of the death penalty”

  1. "I oppose the death penalty not only on moral grounds, but because it fails to prevent crime."

    Your statistical analysis is wrong on a couple levels, but consider this premise: If traffic tickets cost a nickel, would driving behavior change? How about if they resulted in immediate jail time and the loss of your vehicle?

    Of course harsher penalties have a deterrent effect. They won't deter crime completely, but what penalties do?

  2. "As the Death Penalty Information Center reports, 'The murder rate in non-death penalty states has remained consistently lower than the rate in states with the death penalty, and the gap has grown since 1990.'"

    Statistics may not be as fun as anecdotal evidence, but they are far more helpful. The effects of capital punishment on crime rates are a bit more complicated than raising traffic ticket fines.

  3. I note that such nations as Japan, South Korea, St. Kitts, Singapore, and the Bahamas are also among those allowing the death penalty. Regardless, the existence of the death penalty in other nations does not make them bedfellows. I could also argue semantics and statistics but that is beside the point.

    I am opposed to the death penalty, though for different reasons than you. What do you think the punishment for murder should be?

  4. I think it's interesting that countries we condemn as "evil" or "backward" share our capital punishment policy. We like to think of ourselves as so much more civilized, but we still belong to the minority of nations (70) that use the death penalty. While there are some countries on that list (such as those that you mentioned above) who are less unsavory by our measurements, it's still not a grouping we should be proud of.

    I think the punishment for murder should be life in prison, but I think the real solution to our criminal justice situation is how we punish lesser crimes.

    A person who commits murder is usually not new to crime. We need more effective sanctions for armed robbery, aggravated assault, rape, and other violent (and non-violent) crimes. We need to actually live up to the name "Department of Corrections" instead of fixating on being the Department of Punishment.

    I would like to see an increased emphasis on restorative justice and other rehabilitative methods that involve the entire community. I know it won't stop all crime, or turn everyone around, but these types of programs have been remarkably effective when implemented thoughtfully.

  5. Hey Claire,

    "As the Death Penalty Information Center reports, 'The murder rate in non-death penalty states has remained consistently lower than the rate in states with the death penalty, and the gap has grown since 1990."

    The only thing about that statement is that it doesn't actual include any real statistical information – it's a statement without numbers to back it up. And Texas is a really big state with a lot of people in it; I wonder how it pans out per capita.

    Please don't be mad at me! I love you!!!

  6. For those taking issue with the quote: The numbers are there. I just used a summarizing statement to explain the findings. Please see the link on "reports" for clarification and colorful graphs.

    To answer your question, Laura—

    " Murder rates are from the FBI's "Crime in the United States" and are per 100,000 population. The murder rate for the region (death penalty states or non-death penalty states) is the total number of murders in the region divided by the total population (and then multiplied by 100,000)"

  7. Doesn't the average death penalty case cost $2 Million? I think the reason the penalty doesn't work is because when the death penalty is on the table, people will appeal and clog up the court systems.

    I agree that we should improve our D. of Corrections but we should also improve our ability to hand out swift punishment.

  8. The cost of seeking the death penalty varies state to state, but it is always more expensive than life in prison. The most interesting statistic I found was that in New Jersey tax payers have paid $253 million for a capital punishment system that didn't execute a single person. Since 1982, it has cost $11 million per year, and $4.2 million per death sentence. 50 out of the 60 death penalty convictions were reversed.

    I agree that people "clog up the court systems" but if we supposedly have the right to take their life I would hope they have the right to appeal it. Especially considering the false convictions–even with DNA evidence–that have come to light in recent years, I think the right to appeal is an important civil liberty.

  9. I'm not saying peeps shouldn't have the right to appeal. What I'm saying is that since they do, capital punishment is not necessarily that effective per your statistic.

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