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Thoughts on the Death Penalty

Scales of Justice with NoosesWith the uproar over the execution of Troy Davis, it's gotten me thinking of capital punishment. In short, I oppose it.

I suppose there are several arguments surrounding the death penalty and its justifications. And I guess there are a few distinct ways of looking at sentences (though not mutually exclusive). One is as punishment - justice for a crime. If a criminal did something bad to somebody, then something bad is done to them in return. Another is deterrence. If somebody knows that they'll be punished for a crime, then they'll be less likely to commit the crime in the first place. A third is simply eliminating dangerous criminals so that they can't harm anybody else. To repeat something I heard the other day, 100% of executed criminals never commit another crime.

To be honest, I'm kind of ambivalent on the death penalty being used for vengeance. This may make me look barbaric, but I really don't have a whole lot of sympathy for some people. For example, just reading about the murder of James Byrd makes me not lose sleep over the recent execution of one of his killers. But I also don't feel strongly that people should be put to death out of vengeance.

So, what about using the death penalty as a deterrent? Well, it doesn't really make much of a difference. Here's an excerpt from an article from the Columbia Law School:

When we apply contemporary social science standards, the new deterrence studies fall well short of this high scientific bar. Consider the following: Most of the studies fail to account for incarceration rates or life sentences, factors that may drive down crime rates via deterrence or incapacitation; one study that does so finds no effects of execution and a significant effect of prison conditions on crime rates. Another report shows incarceration effects that dwarf the deterrent effects of execution. Most fail to account for complex social factors such as drug epidemics that are reliable predictors of fluctuations in the murder rate over time. The studies don't look separately at the subset of murders that are eligible for the death penalty, instead lumping all homicides together.

According to a study that polled criminologists on the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent:

There is overwhelming consensus among America’s top criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question fails to support the threat or use of the death penalty.

So, it doesn't appear that the death penalty acts as a deterrent.

What about eliminating criminals to make society safer? Well, I think simple life sentences with no possibility of parole are enough to keep violent criminals away from society at large. And once you factor in the appeals process and other costs associated with an execution (each execution costs the state between $2.5 and $5 million), life in prison is actually the more economical way to keep those criminals off the streets.

So, from what I see, the only valid justification for executing criminals is vengeance (and of course, valid there depends on your opinion - there's no objective answer). The other justifications I've heard people use just don't hold up to scrutiny.

In my opinion, the strongest argument against the death penalty is that our justice system isn't perfect. Innocent people are sometimes found guilty, and as bad as it is to lock up innocent people, it's horrific to put them to death. Just consider Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas for a crime he didn't commit. The state has now become the murderer.

And it's not as if false convictions are rare. Take a look at The Innocence Project for a sampling of convictions that have been overturned. According to their site, there have been 273 exonerations based on DNA evidence (since 1989). 17 of those people were on death row before being released.

So, considering that the death penalty does nothing to keep society safer, and that it carries the very real risk of killing innocent people, I don't see any reason why it should continue to be practiced.

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