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Deterrence Of Death Penalty Essay, Research Paper

Deterrence of the Death Penalty

Independent Study

The death penalty has been used for centuries as a form of retributive justice for felonies committed by criminals. The code of Hammurabi, written approximately 3,700 years ago, stated that if a man destroys another man s eye, the offender s eye should be taken out; if a son strikes his father, the son shall have his hand cut off. (246) Early legal codes tried to provide justice by matching the punishment with the offense. This approach was also evident in numerous places within the Old Testament. For example, in the Book of Deuteronomy we read, Life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (8:12) However, even with these early philosophies of justice, punishment was not merely meant to serve as revenge for the victims and their relatives. Instead, punishment was intended to make life and property more secure by reducing the likelihood of a person committing a crime or a second offence.

This aspect of social control is called deterrence: the use of punishment to deter people from deviance. As Plato expounded 2,300 years ago, Punishment brings wisdom; it is the healing act of wickedness. (199) This occurs, Plato explained, because the point of punishment is not to retaliate for a past wrong but rather to make sure that the man who is punished, and he who sees him punished, may be deterred from doing wrong again. (199) As human societies evolved into complex states, governments increasingly sought to deter crime; hence punishments became increasingly severe as crimes continued to occur.

Capital punishment became common during the eighteenth century in England where more then two hundred different crimes carried the death penalty. In addition, executions were typically conducted in public places in an effort to deter those who witnessed the punishment from committing similar acts. Soon after the implementation of the death penalty into England s Criminal Code, other countries began to experiment with its effectiveness. In different countries, the death penalty was enforced for different severities of crime, however, the motive always remained the same to deter people from committing serious offences. The death penalty is still enforced today in numerous countries. Nevertheless, its effectiveness as a deterrent has become quite a controversial issue. By examining societies views of the death penalty, the physiological aspects of the mind, and criminologists views of deterrence, it will be demonstrated that pro-capital punishment arguments are fundamentally flawed.

In examining the deterrent effect of the death penalty from a sociological perspective, studies have shown that in certain countries the brutal tactics presented by the death penalty contribute quite successfully to deterring criminals. An annotation released last year by the F.B.I supports this theory. The annotation focused on recent statistics between Singapore and Los Angeles. Both have approximately 3.5 million inhabitants and imposed the death penalty as their most severe sentence. During the study period of 1993, Singapore reported fifty-eight murders, and eighty rapes, while Los Angeles reported an astounding 1,100 murders, and 1,855 rapes. (qtd. in Bonner, part 4) Singapore s sanctions are severe, but their statistics show that this form of punishment is an effective deterrent in their particular culture. Whereas, the astronomical rates acquired by Los Angeles was a direct reflection of their system of sanctions. Obviously, the system, which Los Angeles has employed, was not as effective for their diversified population. One s outlook on life is greatly influenced by their culture. The Los Angeles populace lives a drastically different lifestyle then the populace of Singapore and, therefore, the success of the death penalty in Singapore does not prove that the death penalty in Los Angeles will be a successful deterrent.

Since cultural diversities often influence our perspectives on life, it is a valid argument that deterrence may be perceived in a multitude of ways. A deterrent effect was clearly evident in the inhabitants of Singapore; whereas, studies revealed that the deterrent effect was not clearly evident in the inhabitants of Los Angeles. Also, current studies on deterrence raised further doubt that North Americans reacted positively to deterrence. Social Scientists are presently noting the brutalization effect that seems to be encompassing North Americans. An examination conducted by social science researcher John Bailey further supports the theory of brutalization. Bailey examined total killings and sub-type killings in Oklahoma State between 1989 and 1991. After controlling for a number of variables, Bailey found that there was no evidence of a deterrent effect. He did, however, find that there was a significant increase in stranger killings and non-felony stranger killings after Oklahoma resumed executions after a twenty-five year moratorium. ( Crime Theory 36). Another example of a brutalization effect due to capital punishment is exhibited in a study performed by Author Ernie Thompson. Thompson examined criminal homicides in Los Angeles before and after California s execution of Robert Harris in 1992, the state s first execution after a twenty-five year moratorium. Thompson found slight increases in homicides during the eight months following the execution. ( Homicide Studies 129-150). These investigations, in addition to numerous others, exemplify the thinking patterns of North Americans. It reveals that Westerners associate violence with violence and, consequently, when an execution is committed, there is more hostility in our society.

Our frame of mind and our perception of the death penalty play a major role in our actions when we are faced with a complicated situation. The pro activists model advocates an eye for and eye, and a tooth for a tooth. (Deuteronomy 8:12) They believe that a murderer should be killed for killing their victim. Thus, they kill them. The procedure of execution is done in a controlled environment. But, what happens if ordinary people use this model and start taking justice into their own hands? When comparisons are made between states with the death penalty and states without, the majority of death penalty states show murder rates higher than non-death penalty states. The average number of murders per 100,000 in 1999 among death penalty states was 5.5, in contrast, the average of murder rates among non-death penalty states was only 3.6. ( Deterrence 12) The Federal Bureau of Investigation data shows that ten of the twelve states without capital punishment have homicide rates below the national average, while half the states with the death penalty have homicide rates above the national average. In a state-by- state analysis, the FBI found that during the last twenty years, the homicide rate in the states with the death penalty has been 48 percent to 101 percent higher than in the states without the death penalty. A study by the Times also found that homicide rates had risen and fallen along roughly symmetrical paths in the states with and without the death penalty, suggesting to many experts that the threat of the death penalty rarely deters criminals. (qtd. in Bonner, part 4) Sociologically, this evidence demonstrates, shows just how influential our justice system can be. For some, the imposition of the death penalty had a very positive effect. But for numerous others only a negative effect of the death penalty was apparent.

Furthermore, from a psychologist s perspective, strict imposition of the death penalty gives our society the impression that no criminal will be tolerated; as a result, the death penalty should be a reasonable deterrent for felons. From a strictly scientific perspective, the death penalty acting as a deterrent seems like a rational idea, because rational people understand the links between cause and effect, and crime and punishment. Moreover, because human beings are equipped with a conscience, they realize the consequences of violating specific codes of conduct. Thus, by punishing people rigorously for their crimes, society should be deterred from committing infractions. This theory seems concrete; but scrutinizing crime in context gives a completely different perspective to the roots of the problem. The alleged deterrent value of the death penalty is refuted by all the data on violent crime. The death penalty, if it is to deter, must be a conscious part of a cost-benefit equation in the perpetrator s mind. There are few murders that involve that level of rationality or consciousness of the outcomes. Most murders are: (1) committed under the influence of drugs or alcohol; (2) committed by people with severe personality disorders; (3) committed during periods of extreme rage and anger; or (4) committed as a result of intense fear. (Criaoffi et al. 21) None of these states of mind lend itself to the calm reflection required for a deterrent effect to occur. Thus, speaking from a psychological point of view, unless the crime is premeditated there can be no deterrent effect implemented.

Psychologists have proven that without a reflective presence of mind before committing a crime, there can be no deterrent effect. On the contrary, Ven den Haag, a professor at the Criminal Justice Center of the Sam Houston State University, refutes this argument. After assessing the Criminal Justice System, Ven den Haag points out that the greater the threatened penalty, the more it deters. For example, he says, a $1000 parking fine would probably keep you from parking illegally, rather than a $10 fine. (Ven den Haag 32) Ven den Haag believes that the death penalty is likely to deter some murderers, and that should be sufficient to keep using it.

Similar to Ven den Haag, Steven Goldberg also believes in the effectiveness of the death penalty. In Steven s article, “So What if the Death Penalty Deters?” Steven discusses several myths that would aid in the discrediting of the death penalty. For example, since many murders result from emotional impulse, the death penalty could have, at best, only the slightest deterrent effect. He counteracts this statement by saying that the death penalty does deter because of the psychological resistance to the act that it instills in the criminal. He continues that potential murders simply act, but it is the deterrent effect, which acts on them.

(Goldberg part 2)

Isaac Ehrlich is also part of the Pro Coalition of the death penalty. Ehrlich conducted a study in the 1960 s regarding the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent. Ehrlich found conclusive evidence that the death penalty was an effective deterrent. He further claimed that for every execution there were 7-8 criminals that were deterred. Ehrlich’s study concluded that for every execution 1 to 8 lives were saved.

Mark Tushnet, author of the book The Death Penalty discredits the Ehrlich study by pointing out the extensive flaws in Ehrlich s research. In his book, Tushnet discusses why Ehrlich used 1963-1967 to research the deterrence of the death penalty. He states that during the early part of that decade from 1960-1962, the rate of executions declined sharply and the murder rate rose drastically. A dramatic decline in executions, unless offset by a massive drop in the murder rate, would support the conclusion that the death penalty deterred.(Tushnet 63) That was the reason Ehrlich used 1963-1967 in his study model. If you apply his model to data up to 1963, it shows no deterrent effect. Tushnet also points out that Ehrlich omitted some relevant variables, such as the availability of guns and emergency treatment. If states without the death penalty have inefficient emergency services, it reflects a higher death rate because people who die from assaults would have lived if services were more available. Tushnet states quite conclusively that the Ehrlich study was flawed and is, therefore, not a valid argument for deterrence.

Contrary to the study conducted by Ehrlich, both the Van de Haag, and Steven Goldberg studies employed excellent measures of control. Though, both studies were conducted under the assumption that the criminal, at the time of the offence, had a capable mens rea. Therefore, they presume that criminal s invariably premeditate their crimes, and as a result, should be deterred by the consequences. It is probable that the death penalty does deter a small number of individuals from committing a crime, at the same time, when you take into consideration the probability of human error, (i.e. convicting innocent people) the negatives drastically out way the positives.

In brief, through the analysis of societies views, a psychological aspects of the mind, and criminologists views of deterrence, it has been proven that pro-capital arguments are fundamentally flawed. For thousands of years the death penalty has been implemented as our highest form of punishment for crime. Yet, studies show that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent. So why do we keep this callous form of punishment? It is argued that while the death penalty does not deter all criminals from committing crimes, it does deter some. But is this enough? Are we willing to brutally murder people who may have been wrongfully convicted, to save the lives of the minute few who might be deterred by the death penalty? Are we sending the right message to society on how to handle our serious offenders? Are we giving these people the fair chance to learn from their mistakes, and to seek counselling in the hopes of rehabilitation? Most importantly, are we giving these people their right to life? The death penalty is a very controversial issue that is not to be taken lightly. When a person is sentenced to die their right to life and rehabilitation is taken away. Should we not at least give them a chance?

I was 17 years old when I committed the offense for which I was sentenced to die,

and I didn t even start thinking and caring about my life until I was at least 20.

Charles F. Rumbaugh prior to his execution September 11, 1985

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