The death penalty, as an American institution, deserves to die out.
It’s long past time that we got rid of the practice of killing prisoners in the United States — besides being morally wrong, it’s also bad for our image around the world. We remain one of just a few handful of countries that still employ the practice.
In the past five years, according to a recent article from the BBC, just 33 countries executed at least one criminal using a state-based death penalty system. More than 140 other countries have officially ended the death penalty, either by placing moratoriums on the practice or legislating them outright out of existence.
Several states across our own country are moving toward this direction. This past week, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California announced the Golden State would also put a halt to the death penalty.
“Our death penalty system has been – by any measure – a failure,” Newsom planned to say in a statement, according to the Sacramento Bee. “The intentional killing of another person is wrong. And as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual.”
Not everyone is onboard with the idea — including the president of the United States.
“Defying voters, the Governor of California will halt all death penalty executions of 737 stone cold killers,” President Donald Trump wrote in a tweet on Wednesday morning. “Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!”
Not every “co-victim” supports the death penalty
The support of the death penalty of family members and friends of the victims of these criminals, sometimes called the “co-victims,” is often cited in arguments that favor keeping the execution of death row inmates in place. We should give careful consideration to their feelings and beliefs on the practice, and what kinds of punishments they hope to see happen.
But at the same time, death as a punishment is not always something these co-victims want. A study published in 2016 found, for example, that only 2.5 percent of co-victims reported they felt closure after a death row inmate was executed; more than eight times that number in the study said they didn’t feel closure afterward. Other co-victims have reported that, while initially feeling good about an execution of a criminal in the immediate days following, their attitudes changed drastically further down the road.
So the idea that co-victims of these criminals’ actions feel forgotten or “not thrilled” by Newsom’s decision, as Trump has suggested, is not rooted much in reality. In truth, not every co-victim supports the death penalty.
Attitudes across the country about the death penalty are changing, too, as more Americans are starting to view the practice as wrong. While a majority in an October 2018 Gallup poll still supported keeping it in place, only 56 percent said as much, while 41 percent said they wanted the death penalty gone. That rate of support is down substantially from where it was just 15 years ago, when 70 percent of Americans in a May 2003 Gallup poll said they wanted it kept.
Innocent people are being killed
There are plenty of reasons why one would stand against the idea of the death penalty remaining a fixture of the American justice system. For starters, it has consistently killed innocent people. It’s unclear how many innocent people exactly have been executed because, as the Death Penalty Information Center notes, courts don’t generally do posthumous investigations of convicted killers. Still, even though such investigations don’t get carried out often, DPIC does have a list of at least 15 individuals it suspects have been executed wrongly since 1989.
We also know that people who get sentenced to death row sometimes get exonerated later on, as 144 such cases have occurred since 1973. But a 2014 study into the likelihood of how many death row inmates were actually innocent estimated that more than 1 in 25 are currently sitting behind bars waiting to be executed for a crime they didn’t commit.
The death penalty doesn’t prevent capital crimes
Another reason to oppose the death penalty is that it’s an ineffective way to prevent crime. Many have made the argument over the years that keeping the death penalty in place was necessary to stop others from considering carrying out a murder. If people know they could get killed themselves for a capital offense, the idea went, then they’d be less likely to commit the crime.
Trump himself on several occasions has suggested that people accused and convicted of major drug crimes should face the death penalty for doing so, using deterrence as his rationale for his controversial remarks.
“These people kill thousands of people over the course of their lives through drugs,” Trump said about dealers in March of last year. “So we’re going to have to get much, much tougher in terms of penalty.”
The president was chastised for his remarks, but some defended them as at least having some basis of truth to them because of the idea of deterrence. Only, we know that the death penalty, used as a means to deter crime, doesn’t actually work, rendering that “truth” as an actual falsehood.
We can look at simple crime statistics to verify this. Of the 25 states with the highest murder rates across the country, 20 have the death penalty. Conversely, among the 25 states with the lowest murder rates, only 11 have the death penalty, per reporting from HuffPost. Were the death penalty a true deterrent, we’d see the opposite.
Experts on the subject agree that the practice doesn’t deter capital crime. A survey of criminologists from 2008, for example, found that only 5 percent felt the death penalty prevented criminal behavior. Conversely, 88 percent of criminologists said the death penalty had zero effect in deterring crime.
The death penalty costs a lot of money
If the moral implications or empirical research that show the death penalty needs to go away aren’t enough to convince you, then perhaps the price tag will.
Logically speaking, a person wouldn’t be faulted for believing a prisoner on death row would “cost less” to keep imprisoned than a person who has a life sentence. But that ignores what the true costs are in the first place.
Ours is a justice system of due process, and as such it’s imperative that inmates be given the chance to plead their cases when it comes to their ultimate punishment, especially one that has an irreversible outcome. The review process for death row inmates can take more than a couple of decades to complete. In addition to the typical prisoner expenses that are true of any inmate, death row inmates cost the state even more due to the initial judicial and subsequent appeals process.
How much more? A study released in 2008 found that, with the death penalty kept in place in the state of California, it would cost the state nearly 12 times more than it would if it simply abolished the practice altogether.
Some have said that changes, then, have to come about in the appeals process rather than abolishing the death penalty, a sensical argument. But even taking into account the removal of all expenses made during appeals, focusing on just pre-trial and trial costs, states exercising the death penalty are still spending way more than states that simply do not have it, per research compiled by Amnesty International.
Let’s put an end to the death penalty
I have demonstrated moral, empirical, and economic reasons for why the death penalty isn’t right for our country any longer. Plenty of other arguments against the death penalty — including the fact that it notoriously targets people of color more often than it does white people — deserves deeper investigation and consideration as well.
So why do we still have it?
My guess is that people like having the death penalty around. It feels “good” for some, I suspect, to be able to say a retributive act as final as killing a convicted individual is available for those who commit the worst crimes imaginable, even if the reality of the situation is that the practice itself is demonstrably “bad.”
We need to change our thinking about the subject entirely. We should oppose the death penalty for rational reasons, but arguments that appeal to our pathos showcase why the death penalty is wrong, too. Where is the justification of the state to say murder is abhorrent when it conducts acts of murder on a regular basis, for example?
Newsom’s call for a moratorium on the death penalty in his state makes total sense and deserves widespread support. Trump and others who oppose it ought to reassess their reasons for doing so.Featured image credit: Florida Department of Corrections/Wikimedia