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Should capital punishment be abolished?

Essay By: Sam Smith
Editorial and opinion

A college essay.

Submitted:Nov 12, 2012    Reads: 4,189    Comments: 1    Likes: 1   

Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty is a controversial and complicated issue that can cause much heated debate. Opposition to the death penalty includes those who argue in favour of the sanctity of life and those who either argue that it does not work as a detriment or that we should be focusing on rehabilitating prisoners instead of punishing them. Also the justice system is not infallible and as sometimes innocent people get imprisoned so do innocent people sometimes get executed. Supporters of the death penalty argue that it does work as a detriment to criminals and that it guarantees that individuals such as Osama Bin Laden, Ted Bundy and other brutal murderers and tyrants are never again free to commit their heinous crimes.

Easily among the most important concerns over the death penalty are whether or not it works as detriment and keeps dangerous individuals from recommitting crimes. Some would argue that life in prison is a harsh enough sentence and measure to keep criminals from the public. While others argue that the death penalty is the safest and surest way of doing this.

"Capital punishment permanently removes the worst criminals from society and should prove much safer for the rest of us than long term or permanent incarceration."

It is understandable that people would argue this as the death penalty definitely does permanently remove highly dangerous criminals from society and sends a strong message. If you commit a serious crime you will be severely punished. The Japanese have put forward an interesting case in favour of capital punishment.

"A unique justification for keeping capital punishment has been put forward by some Japanese psychologists […] The argument goes that the death penalty reinforces the belief that bad things happen to those who deserve it. This reinforces the contrary belief; that good things will happen to those who are 'good'."

The Japanese argue that while the death penalty establishes that dangerous criminals will be punished severely and that their acts will not be tolerated it also helps the public believe that if you live a good life, good things will happen to you. Interestingly the article states that "Oddly, this argument seems to be backed up by Japanese public opinion. Those who are in favour currently comprise 81% of the population, or that is the official statistic." It should also be noted that the article states that Japan executes approximately three prisoners per year showing that while Japan uses the death penalty it is used rarely as an extreme measure. While the argument may seem strange Japan is culturally very different from the west and perhaps this works for them. If the death penalty is to be used it certainly should be used with great care.

It can be argued that some individuals, the worst of the worst of criminals, will even when imprisoned pose a threat and that society would be better off with them dead. Not every criminal can be rehabilitated and some wield influence even from behind bars, such as tyrants and religious fanatics. They may even be a danger to other inmates and prison guards.

But does capital punishment really work as a deterrent? Those who argue in favour of abolishing the death penalty say that it does not.

"The death penalty doesn't seem to deter people from committing serious violent crimes. The thing that deters is the likelihood of being caught and punished. The general consensus among social scientists is that the deterrent effect of the death penalty is at best unproven"

It is indeed difficult to prove that it does. At the very least capital punishment is not going to deter 'spur of the moment' crimes and 'crimes of passion' as the perpetrators of such crimes are unlikely to think of the consequences of their actions or care. They might even consider the consequences as an acceptable prize to pay to be rid of someone or exact revenge. Capital punishment is also unlikely to deter serial killers many of whom are psychopathic or sociopathic or incapable of rational and functional thinking for whatever reason, such as severe schizophrenics and others inflicted with severe delusions. Some actually wish to be caught because they seek the infamy of the likes of Ted Bundy, Jack the Ripper and Peter Sutcliffe and even the threat of death will not deter them. Murderers will sometimes even commit suicide at the end of their murder sprees like the Columbine Killers who murdered several of their classmates. A criminal with a cause or an ideology that fuels his actions is unlikely to be deterred by the threat of death.

"In the USA, more murders take place in states where capital punishment is allowed. […]The gap between death penalty states and non-death penalty states rose considerably from 4 per cent difference in 1990 to 44 per cent in 2003."

This seems to suggest that the opposite is happening. Instead of having fewer murders take place the states with capital punishment have more. A curious statistic but it comes from a reliable source. The BBC also state that the murders of police officers have increased. Considering this, this statistic might make sense. A criminal fleeing from the police who knows that if they are captured they are likely to be executed will likely have little qualms about killing the pursuing officers. In any case the claim that capital punishment deters crime does not have enough support to stand as a valid argument.

There are also questions over the ethics and fairness of capital punishment. One of the biggest issues with the death penalty is the fact that innocent people have been executed and unlike falsely imprisoning someone this cannot be in any way undone.

"Justice demands a punishment that is fair yet revocable, one that provides a sense of finality while allowing for the fallibility of the system. Life without parole meets that bar. It's harsh. It's just. And it's final without being irreversible."
(The Death Penalty A Worldwide Perspective, Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle, Oxford University Press, 2008, page 391)

Criminals do need to be punished and dangerous individuals do need to be kept from the public and from recommitting crimes but surely the sentence of life without the possibility of parole does achieve this and indeed is reversible unlike the death penalty. Life imprisonment does keep dangerous criminals from the public and is a harsh sentence while being more humane than capital punishment. Some argue that the death penalty brutalises society and that it is barbaric and outdated. That society has moved past the 'eye for an eye' mentality. It can also be argued that killing someone for killing someone is hypocritical and vengeance, not justice. Life imprisonment does punish criminals and is a harsh enough sentence to send the message to criminals that serious crimes will be severely punished.

What about the families of victims of violent crimes? Does capital punishment give them closure?

"LWOP allows victims' survivors to move on, rather than keeping them trapped in decades of court hearings and waiting for an execution to occur."

Because of many and lengthy appeals it can easily take over a year for a prisoner confined on death row to be executed. This instead of giving closure creates uncertainty for the families of the victims and prolongs their grief. They are reminded of their loss each day during the lengthy process which sometimes can last for a decade and without a doubt the possibility that the accused might escape justice will be on their minds during such a lengthy period of time. The death penalty does not give the victims' families closure but instead forces them to dwell on their loss while they would be better off left to grieve in peace.

What about the effects of the death penalty on the families of the accused? The families of the accused also suffer during the lengthy process of the death penalty. Like the accused themselves, they go through a cycle of intense emotions. The ordeal of having a loved one accused of a violent crime is already a painful one and like with the victim's family, this ordeal is prolonged by the lengthy process. During this process for the accused's family there will be moments of hope and despair and uncertainty as well as turmoil. Even if the accused is guilty of a terrible crime it cannot be easy for their family to watch them get executed.

"Amnesty International (AI) refers to the system of capital punishment in the United States as "state cruelty against families." AI points out that families, like the condemned, experience alternating hope and despair. The report gives the example of Jay Scott, who received a reprieve minutes away from death, only to be executed a few weeks later. Despair can take a terrible toll."
(Hidden Victims the Effects of the Death Penalty on Families of the Accused, Susan F. Sharp, Rutgers University Press, 2005, page 18)

The intense and lengthy process will also likely have an effect on the families' children. They might be too young to fully understand what is happening beyond the loss of a family member and the intense trauma of the process could have a lasting psychological effect on them, especially if the accused is one of their parents. With life imprisonment dangerous criminals are removed from the public but they are still alive for family member to visit under controlled circumstances if they choose to.

Capital punishment is certainly a complicated and emotional issue. While the deterrent effect of the death penalty is unproven and life imprisonment is in many aspects the more humane and better option for the accused as well as their families and the victims' families, perhaps the death penalty would be the best option as an extreme measure in cases where a criminal is deemed a threat to the public even from behind bars or a danger to other inmates and prison guards and no other solution can be found. The guilt of the accused would of course have to be concretely proven and if used the death penalty should be administered with great care and consideration.

Word count: 1702


(http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/thoughts.html, 15/04/2012)

(http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/capitalpunishment/for_1.shtml, 17/04/2012)

(The Death Penalty A Worldwide Perspective, Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle, Oxford University Press, 2008)

(http://www.aclunc.org/issues/criminal_justice/death_penalty/the_truth_about_life_without_parole_condemned_to_die_in_prison.shtml, 20/04/2012)

(Hidden Victims the Effects of the Death Penalty on Families of the Accused, Susan F. Sharp, Rutgers University Press, 2005)


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