The Immorality of the Death Penalty Word Count: 1580 Capital Punishment was adopted by America when the state of Virginia carried out the colonies’ first execution in 1608 (“History of the Death Penalty”). Since then, usage of the death penalty has been instituted by 36 states, making execution the ultimate form of punishment. Although in theory the death penalty seems like a viable method of punishment, in practice, it has serious flaws that damage the integrity of the state.
Capital Punishment has been falsely idolized as a deterrent, applied unfairly for generations, used as a vehicle for revenge, and made people blind to the fact that life in prison without parole is an equally acceptable form of punishment. The death penalty is an unjust form of punishment and America needs to find other alternatives instead of resorting to such an unjustified practice. Many proponents of the death penalty argue that “the fear of the execution chamber will restrain potential murderers” (Costanzo 95), defined as the deterrence theory.
However, the usage of the death penalty is too infrequent to have any significant impact on criminal behavior (Reiman 38). Out of the 20,000 murderers convicted in America, only 300 were sentenced to death and then only 55 were actually executed each year (Bright 212). People are led to believe that “the death penalty is a better deterrent than prison sentences” (Pojman 206), however, “living in a cage for decades, surrounded by other dangerous criminals and stripped of all important choices” is a far more unbearable sentence then being executed (Costanzo 106).
Louis P. Pojman in his article “A Defense of the Death Penalty” provides an analogy promoting the deterrence theory: every time a person kills an innocent, they’d be struck down by lightening, and after a while, other killers would notice this and think incredibly hard before they decided to kill as well. Then stating that “a great deal of crime is committed on a cost-benefit schema, wherein the criminal…” calculates their “chances of getting caught and punished in some manner” (Pojman 206).
However, most murders are not premeditated, and are instead crimes of passion—where murders occur “under the blinding influence of hatred, rage, jealousy and fear” (Costanzo 104). Crimes that typically run in this general way are results from extreme emotion causing them to put aside their morals and lash out irrationally. Emotions override logic and the consequences never cross the perpetrators mind.
Under the normal guidelines of the deterrence theory, one would expect an increase in the rate of violent crimes due to the death penalty no longer being a restricting factor. However, states that instituted the death penalty show higher crime rates and issues with violence than those who have abolished it. During the abolition years in Florida when the Supreme Court declared the death penalty to be unconstitutional, the homicide rate in the state went down, proving the flaws in the deterrence theory.
Florida now has the third highest death penalty usage rate in America—and problems with increasing crime rates (Decker). These statistics emphasize that there is no evidence for a correlation between deterrence and crime rates. Moreover, the factor of demographics has a greater effect on crime rate than deterrence. According to experiments that analyzed the correlation between demographics and crime rates, it is shown that “homicide rates are more sensitive to demographic characteristics than they are to the effect of executions” (Decker).
People that grow up in low-income slums where crime rates are higher are more naturally predisposed to crime, so deterrence will have little effect. Also, crimes that happen within one’s own race are more likely to have less aggravating circumstances because people favor members of their of their own ethnic group. Members of groups naturally have in-group bias towards those with whom they do not share common backgrounds, a factor known as the Social Identity Theory (Baumeister).
Contact between members of different demographics increase the likelihood of heightened levels of aggression because of certain stressors and anxieties that develop. When in context with violent crime, these stressors become even more intense, and irrational prejudices lead to failure of control over one’s own impulses. People are more insecure around members of different demographics, with the subconscious tension creating moral ambiguity within the mind, leading to a higher propensity of violent crime.
Since these innate biases cannot be consciously controlled, the deterrence theory cannot be considered as a factor for curbing violent crime. Other subconscious factors manipulate people to act out impulsively without premeditated thoughts of the consequences. In the courtroom, these stressors come out in full force. Although the Courts have “concluded that statistics alone do not prove that race enter[s] into any capital sentencing decision in any one particular case…” it is obvious that ethnicity becomes a factor (Ross 153).
Countering the court’s argument, statistics have shown that in America, “blacks who killed whites were five and six times… more likely to be sentenced to death than whites who killed whites” (151). The reason for this is mainly due to jurors unintentionally letting race influence their decision making process. The in-group bias and ethnic boundaries described above cloud the jury’s judgment, seeking a stronger penalty for minority groups. Also, if the victim who was killed was someone with good qualities and is easy to admire and identify, then it is easier to sentence the defendant to death.
Jurors look at the person’s worth, how extreme the case is, and the similarities between themselves and the victim (white jurors can relate to white victims, evoking more sympathy than if it was a black victim); all these play into factors forcing “personal predilections and politics of local prosecutors [to have greater authority] than the heinousness of the crime or the incorrigibility of the defendant” (Bright 219). The lack of people’s ability to get over their personal biases raises the need for serious reform within the courtroom if the death penalty is ever going to be a justified form of punishment.
Kant explains that people are “rational [human] beings [who] are responsible for their behavior… so they are accountable for what they do” (Rachels 144). The theory of retribution, based on the rationality of human behavior, claims that “all the guilty… and only the guilty… deserve to be punished…” and “they deserve to be punished in proportion to the severity of [their] crime” through a judiciary process (Pojman 204). However, most confuse retribution with the instinct for revenge.
People’s emotions become entwined with due process; the “feelings of emotion and quest for revenge” (Costanzo 142) clouds their judgment. On top of those internal emotions, there are four kinds of errors that could occur during a court trial that would go “undetected by legal review: police error, prosecutor error, witness error, and miscellaneous errors such as misleading circumstantial evidence, forensic science errors, and pressure created by community outrage (Costanzo 90). ” When this happens, mistakes arise and innocent people may be sent to prison or death row.
This is where Kant’s support for the retribution theory dwindles. Between the years of 1973 to 2009, 139 individuals have been exonerated in 26 different states for being wrongly convicted (“History of the Death Penalty”). This number, however, does not account for the amount of innocents put to death, as well as the number of cases that the courts did not even publish. Incidentally, 71 of those 139 individuals were African American (“History of the Death Penalty”); implying that other factors get in the way when convicting a criminal.
Those factors could lead to innocent people rotting on death row, living in constant distress of knowing that they are innocent, all while going through the psychological torment of possibly being put to death. Those that are not lucky enough to be found innocent in time have their life cut short because of a failure by the judicial system. Although the theory of retribution provides an efficient way of convicting a criminal, other factors such as innate revenge and oversight by the court, compromise the decision-making process, causing innocents to go through a hell they did not deserve.
Capital punishment is a morally corrupted policy. Our country prides itself on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; what kind of people are we when we take away rights given so abundantly? It is humanity’s primal gravitation toward revenge that ultimately ruins the integrity of capital punishment. Criminals should only be “punished simply for the crime they have committed… and for no other reason” (Rachels 142). Society believes that criminals are deterred by capital punishment, however, few crimes are premeditated and are actually crimes of passion.
The death penalty’s effect on deterrence is virtually the same as long imprisonment (Death Penalty). Studies show that if life imprisonment without parole were strictly enforced, then 20% of those who supported the death penalty originally would instead favor life in prison (Capital Punishment 84). Such a swift change in society’s attitude toward capital punishment proves how supporters vacillate between sides when given contradictory evidence. This shows the weak hold the death penalty has on society.
Although the death penalty has evolved in its standards, it still neglects to consider natural human rights and privileges by undermining one’s ability to think and act rationally, engaging in a devious court system, and succumbing to prejudice. Capital punishment ultimately fails its intended purpose and proves to be a burden on the conscience of society. Works Cited Baumeister, Roy F. , and Brad J. Bushman. “Prejudice and Ingroup Relations. ” Social Psychology and Human Nature. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2007. 402-38. Print. Bright, Stephen B. Why the United States Will Join the Rest of the World in Abandoning Capital Punishment. ” The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy. By James Rachels and Stuart Rachels. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. , 2010. 211-22. Print. Costanzo, Mark. Just Revenge: Costs and Consequences of the Death Penalty. 1st ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. Print. “Death Penalty (Capital Punishment) in the United States – Pros and Cons of the Death Penalty. ” US Politics – Guide to the US Presidential Election, Legislation, and Political News and Opinion.
The New York Times Company, 2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2009. . Decker, Scott H. and Carol W. Kohfeld. “The Deterrant Effect of Capital Punishment in Florida: A Series Analysis. ” Criminal Justice Policy Review 1. 422 (1986): 422-37. Web. 14 Oct 2009. “History of the Death Penalty. ” Death Penalty Information Center. 31 Oct 2009. Web. 14 Oct 2009. Capital Punishment – Cruel and Unusual? (The Information Series on Current Topics) (Reference Series). Wylie: Information Plus (TX), 1998. Print. Pojman, Louis P. “A Defense of the Death Penalty. ” The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy.
By James Rachels and Stuart Rachels. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. , 2010. 203-10. Print. Rachels, James. “The Utilitarian Approach. ” The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Comp. Stuart Rachels. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. , 2010. 97+. Print. Reiman, Jeffrey H. , and Louis P. Pojman. The Death Penalty: For and Against. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. Print. Ross, Michael. “The Death Penalty is Applied Unfailry to Blacks. ” The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. By Paul A. Winters. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 1997. 148-54. Print.