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The Threat Of Death Essay, Research Paper
The Threat of Death
As the war on crime continues, two truths hold steady: eliminating all
crime is impossible, and controlling it is a must. The main weapon used to
control crime in this war is deterrence. The government’s deterrent for
committing murder is the death penalty. The fear of death will not deter every
person who contemplates murder from doing it. Whether it is for religious
reasons and the hope of salvation or something else, stopping some people is not
possible (Cohen 48). The intent is not to stop those people, but instead every
other would-be killer. Capital Punishment has been in the national spotlight
for many years and the center of the debate still remains whether it actually
deters would be offenders. Does this age-old penalty for the ultimate sin
achieve its goal? There are many lofty and rational arguments on both sides of
Advocates of the death penalty claim that the primary reason for this
harsh punishment is that the fear of death discourages people from committing
murder. The main ways in which they support this theory are: the severity of
the punishment, various polls of citizens and prisoners, and two in particular
The most obvious deterring justification is the severity of punishment
(Calebresi 19). This means, put simply, to punish for a crime in a way that the
punishment outweighs the crime. If the punishment for robbing a bank is to
spend one day in jail, then bank robbing would become a daily occurance. On the
same note, if there is a reward for a lost item of jewelry and the reward is
less than the selling price for that jewelry, the finder has no reason to bring
it back. On the other hand, if the reward exceeds the value of the jewelry, the
new owner will bring it back very promptly. In the case of capital punishment,
if a person wants someone dead badly enough, and the punishment for murder is a
short stay in prison, what will possibly keep that person from doing the
unthinkable (Van Den Haag 68). If a person is afraid for their life, then the
stakes for their actions are much higher, probably even too high for most people.
Many psychologists believe that these “stakes” do not even have to be in
conscious thought for them to work. The theory is that a person’s conscience
weighs out many factors in all instances. While a would-be offender might be
contemplating the deed, the death penalty imbeds itself into that person’s
subconscience as a possible consequence of their actions, and thus the
conscience of that person begins to tilt to one side (Guernsey 70).
Another argument for the side that says capital punishment deters is the
majority opinion. New York, until recently, had been one of the few states left
that had yet to employ a death penalty for murder. In a recent opinion-poll,
fifty-seven percent of the respondents say that they believe that the death
penalty deters other criminals from killing (Kuntz 3). As it turns out, the
citizens of society are not the only ones that think the death penalty deters.
The death-roll inmates also feel this way. Through voicing their opinions on
how they feel and their actions (i.e., appeals, more appeals, etc.), they make
it clear that losing their life scares them badly.
There are two main studies that the proponents of the death penalty
refer to as proof of capital punishment’s deterring qualities. The first such
study is by New York University professor Isaac Ehrlich. Through Professor
Ehrlich’s research and studies of statistics that span sixty-six years, he
concludes that each execution prevents around seven or eight people from
committing murder (Worsnop 402). In 1985, an economist from the University of
North Carolina by the name of Stephen K. Layson publishes a report that shows
that every execution of a murderer deters eighteen would be murderers (Guernsey
68). While the numbers from these
studies might seem minute compared to the large number of murders committed
every day in the United States, the numbers become quite large when discussed
in the terms of the nearly four thousand executions that occurred in this
country over the last sixty-five years (Guernsey 65).
While advocates of the death penalty are putting forth extremely strong
arguments that support the proposition that capital punishment prevents murders,
opponents of the death penalty are putting forth arguments that are just as
weighty saying that the death penalty does nothing of the kind. Atypical
instances of murder, such as ones dealing with juvenile or mentally deficient
offenders, statistics make up the bulk of the opponents’ arguments against the
deterring effects of capital punishment.
Most Americans believe that juveniles are exempt from capital punishment.
This is not true. As of recently, over thirty people are on death row for
crimes they committed before they turned eightteen (Guernsey 25). The opponents
to the death penalty argue that juveniles do not have the moral responsibility
to bring a deterrent effect to them (Bazan 17). As Richard L. Worsnop writes in
his article entitled Death Penalty Debate Centers on Retribution:
Peer pressure and family environment subject adolescents to
enormous psychological and emotional stress. Adolescents
respond to stressful situations by acting impulsively and
without the mature judgement expected of adults. These
characteristics are shared by all adolescents….Thus, the
possibility of capital punishment is meaningless to
juveniles and has no deterrent effect.
Mentally deficient offenders are in the same situation that juveniles are in.
“As many as 30 percent of the 2,300 prisoners on death row may be retarded or
mentally impaired (Guernsey 30).” For a person that does not know what is right
or wrong, or even more, does not understand that he or she could face death for
what he is doing, capital punishment is not very likely going to have a
Another situation that the opponents build their platform upon is in the
case of offenders impaired by drugs or alcohol or in an emotional rage. If a
person is not thinking straight, then chances are very good that they are not
going to be dwelling on what the consequences of their actions might be (Van Den
Haag 63). One simple instance could be a man goes down to the local bar, drinks
a few beers, and gets in a fight and someone ends up dying. This situation
classifies two different ways. First, the man has alcohol in his system and is
not in full control of his decision making processes. Second, because of the
fight or flight response in his body, the emotional rush from adrenaline will
overcome his rational thought. Capital punishment obviously does not deter this
man in the least by the thought of ending up in an electric chair or taking a
lethal injection. Another example of emotional rage might be when someone “sees
red.” For instance, a man (or woman) comes home to find his spouse sleeping
with another person. The man loses control, pulls a gun, and shoots his spouse
and her lover dead. The man is overcome with emotion and is very doubtfully
contemplating the thought that he himself could face the same fate (Guernsey 68).
Statistics are on the side of the opponents to capital punishment. In
the early 1960’s, a study by Thorsten Sellin compares statistics of side-by-side
states, one with the death penalty and one without. Sellin picks apart just
about every detail he can find and concludes that there is no evidence to
support the deterrent effect of the death penalty (Worsnop 398). Hans Zeisel, a
law and sociology professor, theorizes that “if executions deter murderers,
those states that stopped executions in the late 1960’s would have experienced
a greater increase in the murder rate than those states that stopped executions
decades ago.” Zeisel finds no sudden increase in the murder rate and concludes
that the death penalty has no deterring value (Worsnop 2).
Murders will continue, it seems, no matter what is done about it. The
proponents of capital punishment say that this is true, but the deterring
effects of the death penalty control it somewhat. Opponents to this say that
the death penalty holds no deterring effect of any kind. They believe that
capital punishment is just useless killing with no inherent value. This debate
is likely to continue for years to come.
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