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Capitalistic Punishment

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”…so says the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible. Throughout history, different societies have incorporated this principle into their legal and cultural lives. In today’s context in the United States, this traditional form of retributional theory has taken the form of state-sponsored capital punishment. The infamous “death penalty,” legalized nationally in 1976 by Supreme Court decision, has resulted in the execution of over five hundred convicted (rightly and wrongly) murderers in the past quarter century. In the minds of advocates, the ultimate penalty has swiftly and justly incapacitated killers as well as effectively deterred future murderers. On the contrary, both common sense and empirical evidence reveal capital punishment to be inefficient, ineffective, and unjust; therefore, the death penalty should be abolished in the United States.

Most of those who espouse capital punishment laud it for its supposed deterrence effect; that is, its alleged ability to intimidate would-be criminals into abstaining from murder for fear of the fatal penalty. According to statistics, however, no such effect is apparent. “Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the number of executions and the size of death row have substantially increased. Yet during this same period of time, the FBI Uniform Crime Reports show virtually no change in the national murder rate” (). Moreover, some sociologists like Hugo Adam Bedau in his book The Death Penalty in America suggest that these very executions intended to deter crime, may, in fact, incite crime through a “brutalization” effect, whereby a cycle of violence and murder is only intensified by government-approved homicide. Common sense backs up this empirical evidence. First, one can classify homicides into two categories for practical purposes: pre-meditated and non-premeditated. Obviously, those who plan to murder either plan to get away with the crime or simply are not concerned with the consequences of their actions. Similarly, those who kill in a spontaneous fit of emotion or while under the influence of drugs or alcohol have not rationally considered the ramifications of their actions. In both instances, no matter how serious or intimidating the threat of punishment may be, the concept of deterrence is questionable at best.

Another questionable characteristic associated with the death penalty is the fallacy that it is the most efficient method of retribution. Surely, executing a convicted murderer would be the most cost-effective manner to incapacitate him or her. This might be true if the American justice system were structured differently, but according to studies “the death penalty is not now, nor has it ever been, a more economical alternative to life imprisonment” (Spangenberg 47). And furthermore, in The Death Penalty in America, Bedau cites research that shows states like Florida, New York, Kansas, Maryland, and North Carolina discovered that the implementation of capital punishment dramatically increased penal costs –mostly at the expense of taxpayers. The high price of the death penalty can be attributed to various factors: the lengthiness and cost of capital cases as well as the ensuing litigation and appeals after a death sentence has been declared. A solution may be to eradicate some of these safeguards, but in doing so, Americans would be haphazardly playing with their Constitutional right to a fair trial. Paramount to contradicting the Constitution, doing so could endanger the lives of innocent American citizens.

Endangering the lives of innocent American citizens should not be publicly, or legally, sponsored. This is, however, precisely what the death penalty is doing. The implementation of capital punishment has often in the past, and continues to be, racially motivated. Studies show “that African American defendants are four times more likely to receive a death sentence than white defendants and that execution is more likely when the murder victim is white” (Rovella 20). Any racist or prejudice law is wrong and needs to be, at the very least revised, if not eliminated –again, especially when dealing with the lives of human beings. Even more abhorrent is the following statistic: “Since 1976, seventy-five American men and women have been convicted of capital crimes, sentenced to death, and later found innocent (Economist 27). In the past twenty years, one out of every seven men and women given the death penalty was actually innocent! Does the death of even one hundred criminals justify the death of one innocent human being? This evidence alone constitutes a strong case against the death penalty.

The question remains, then, why do many Americans continue to show support for capital punishment in many nationwide polls? The only groups of people who seem to gain anything from the death penalty are those with political motivations and aspirations. Politicians seeking votes and prosecutors campaigning for office or advocating personal views play on the public’s emotions by using the death penalty as a scare tactic to appear “tough on crime.” Maybe those who support capital punishment simply believe in the “eye for an eye” system of justice. This system dictates that if someone takes the life of another, then the only fair thing to do is to take his or her life in return. But why not end the cycle of killing? If murder is wrong in one instance, isn’t it wrong in all instances? Understandably, a convicted killer must be incapacitated, but life imprisonment without the possibility of parole solves this problem without more death. Finances currently devoted to capital punishment legislation could be used to enforce stricter sentencing guidelines to keep murderers off the street or they could be used to set up programs for rehabilitation and atonement. There are simply too many problems with the current philosophy and application of the death penalty to use it in the name of justice at the expense of human lives.

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