Foundations of Criminal Justice
Capital punishment or the death sentence is the harshest sentence that can be imposed by the courts and is reserved in the United States for murderers with aggravating factors. Thirty-eight states and the Federal Government have capital punishment statutes which allow the vilest, most depraved criminals to be put to death instead of life in prison (United States Department of Justice, 2008). The death penalty is reserved for those malevolent sociopath??™s that have no concern for the lives that they take or the families of their victims whom suffer through the loss, trauma and pain of violently losing a loved one. These same individuals have taken the life and liberty of another person and as such have been tried, found guilty and sentenced to be executed all as the Supreme Court mandates. However, capital punishment is irrevocable and once complete, cannot be undone even if evidence later exonerates the executed prisoner. Capital punishment has its detractors and its supporters, but it is controversial and sure to invoke heated debate between opponents, so is the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment or just deserts
The History of Capital Punishment
From some of the earliest known records there has been evidence of capital punishment being used in the United States and abroad. Those offenders that violated the common decency of the majority of the citizens or royalty were tried, sentenced and executed for their crimes against society??™s standards. Executions were, at one time, public affairs that brought spectators from vast areas together to watch the offender??™s agonizing, tortured death. These condemned prisoners were given no appeals and no chance to change their judge or executioner??™s decision. Executions were carried out without delay and jails remained for the temporary incarceration of nonviolent offenders and drunkards. While the methods of execution have changed somewhat from hangings to lethal injection or the electric chair, the end results are the same. When all is said and done, the criminal is still just as dead as back in the 1800??™s. Capital punishment is arguably the most controversial policy among those in the criminal justice field. Depending on the state, executions may be by the electric chair, firing squad, the gas chamber, hanging or the lethal injection of the drugs sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. This combination of drugs induces a coma, causes paralysis and then stops the heart (Whitaker, 2007).
Disadvantages of Capital Punishment
Many capital punishment abolitionists cite the reasons of cost, failure to deter crime, accidental executions of innocent people, racial bias, the random application of the death penalty, religious objections, human rights abuse and the failing of the judicial system in their protestation of the use of capital punishment as a form of criminal penalty (Unknown, 2008). While the Supreme Court has attempted on numerous occasions to address these issues and has implemented new laws to improve the implementation of capital punishment, the system remains seriously flawed. According to Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, the death penalty remains after twenty years burdened with discrimination, arbitrariness and mistake (Blackmun, 1995). Rather than employ a death penalty that violates the constitutional right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, The Supreme Court could issue a moratorium on its use and life in prison without the possibility of parole could replace it. This would keep these offenders from ever reentering society as well as capital punishment, but would alleviate the problems that are inherent in the death penalty.
There has been a decline in the number of people executed in recent history and the number of offenders sentenced to death has also decreased dramatically since 1999 (USDOJ). Changes in the types of crime punishable by death, the attempts to ensure the death penalty is used fairly and consistently, efforts to privatize executions and attempts to lessen the cruelty of the punishment have all contributed to the decline in the number of inmates being executed (Robinson, 2005). According to Robinson, in America, only about one to two percent of aggravated murderers are sentenced to death and the other percentage remains in prisons across the country. The costs for exercising the death penalty are about 24 times more expensive than incarcerating a prisoner for life with no possibility of parole, so the benefits of capital punishment are unconvincing at best (Robinson).
Advantages of Capital Punishment
Capital punishment is thought by many to be a deterrent to crime. Knowing that killing another may get you sentenced to death row should make any potential murderer think twice about the actions they are going to commit. Unfortunately, most murders are committed in spur of the moment decisions and only rarely are murders premeditated, so the benefits of capital punishment as a deterrent are minimal (USDOJ). While the actual number of people executed in the United States is relatively low, this fatalistic sentence is reserved for those ghastly offenders that murder their victims in cold blood; thereby making it less likely that innocent people will be executed, but there have been questions raised regarding some prisoner??™s innocence while on death row. If capital punishment was abolished completely, this issue would never be a problem for any generation to grapple with. There would be no media or public outcry for the pardon or reprieve of a criminal sentenced to death. Simply put, the judicial system is making its caseload much harder on itself than it needs to be merely to execute a single convicted murderer.
Capital Punishment and Human Rights
In 1948, The United Nations approved a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, designed to support the fundamental human rights of all individuals, which states everyone, regardless of all other factors, has the right to live in spite of the severity of the crime committed (Polk-Bauman, 2008). This treaty was non-binding and subsequently the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was implemented, which forcefully persuades each country to abolishing the death penalty, but does provide that the death sentence may be imposed for the most serious of crimes. This article, the ???most universally accepted human rights instrument in history??? has yet to be signed by two member nations, Somalia and the United States and the European Parliament has declared that it ???considers capital punishment an inhuman, medieval form of punishment and unworthy of modern societies??? (Polk-Bauman). Capital punishment has been called the ???ultimate violation of human rights and the cold blooded killing of another individual by the state??? by Amnesty International and they assert that ???international standards prohibit the execution of anyone whose guilt is in doubt??? (Unknown, 2008).
Appeals and Exoneration
Innocent people that have been accused, tried and convicted of crimes have no recourse except to appeal their sentences to a higher court. The appeals process is a long, tedious, time consuming procedure that ultimately bases its decisions on whether an individual tried, convicted and sentenced for a crime had their basic human rights violated. If a prisoner is executed and then evidence is later found to exonerate the accused, it may be too late for an appeals process to overturn their conviction and imposed sentence. ???There have been 111 people released from death row because DNA evidence proved they did not commit the crime for which they were convicted. Even with this information, 55 percent of the public feels confident that the death penalty is applied fairly, while 39 percent say it is not??? (White, 2008). The potential human rights violation of executing an innocent man is yet another reason why capital punishment should be eliminated by a society founded on the concepts of life, liberty and equality.
Capital Punishment and Religion
Religious beliefs also play a part in wanting to abolish the death penalty. The Holy Bible that many religions follow states that an eye for an eye is appropriate revenge for wrongdoing. However, this same Bible also states that thou shall not kill and that no one has the right to take another life, so contradictions abound over whether the death penalty is justifiable and condoned by the Bible or if it is a moral sin committed by the state just as it is when committed by any other perpetrator. The Archbishop of Washington, Catholic Cardinal McCarrick, writes “…the death penalty diminishes all of us, increases disrespect for human life, and offers the tragic illusion that we can teach that killing is wrong by killing??? (White). Other countries that do not follow the Holy Bible, but follow the teachings of the Quran also validate executions as justice for the offender, but the taking of another??™s life is used for crimes such as treason and rape when even the concept of an eye for an eye cannot be rationalized. Although some convicted murderers do not deserve to live, do we have the right to take their life in exchange While an eye for an eye may be spoken of in the Bible, two wrongs do not make a right and as such, the execution of any person for any reason is morally wrong.
Capital Punishment and Race
The issue of race also plays a part in the abolishment of the death penalty. Capital punishment is used more frequently when the perpetrator is Caucasian than when they are African American, but the number of prisoners incarcerated that are of African American descent is far greater than any other ethnicity. In a report to the American Bar Association, Professor David Baldus found that in 96 percent of states that have been reviewed, there was a pattern of either race of defendant or race of victim discrimination and in some instances, both situations were present (Bright, 1997). There is also a pattern of offenders being executed more frequently, as in 80 percent of the time, if the victim was Caucasian than any other race although typically, only 50 percent of murder victims are Caucasian (Unknown).
While the American government has authorized the use of capital punishment, the purpose it serves is limited and faulty. Murderers are no more likely to stop killing because of the death penalty than they are for life in prison. Although the number of inmates being executed continues to decline, America still has a serious problem with violent crime. While the number of inmates on death row is infinitely miniscule compared to those in prison awaiting parole, it has not been proven that capital punishment is a successful deterrent to crime. Many believe that capital punishment is a barbaric and inhumane treatment for even the most horrific crime. If other nations have abolished capital punishment because of its inhumane treatment of human beings, then why would the most civilized society in the world continue to use this barbaric, arcane form of punishment that has not been proven to be effective One must ask, if the death penalty is an effective deterrent, why then does this problem continue to plague our criminal justice system ???To take a life in order to prove how much we value another life does not strengthen our society. It is a public policy that devalues our very being and detracts crucial resources from programs that could truly make our communities safe??? (Woodford, 2008).
Blackmun, H. (1995). Angel on Death Row. The Death Penalty: Pro and Con. Congressional Quarterly Researcher. 5(9). Retrieved October 14, 2008 from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/angel/procon/deathissue.html
Bright, S. (1997). Capital Punishment on the 25th Anniversary of Furman vs. Georgia. Southern Center for Human Rights. Retrieved October 14, 2008 from http://www.schr.org/reports/docs/furman3.pdf
Polk-Bauman, B. (2008). UN Chronicle Online Edition. Capital Punishment Today. Where the World Stands. Retrieved October 14, 2008 from http://www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle/2004/webArticles/072604_CapitalPunishment.asp
Robinson, M. (2005). Justice blind (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
Schmalleger, F. (2007) Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st Century. (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
Unknown. (2008). Amnesty International. Retrieved October 14, 2008 from http://www.amnesty.org/en/death-penalty
Unknown. (2008). Facts and Figures. National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Retrieved October 14, 2008 from http://www.ncadp.org/index.cfmcontent=5
Unknown. (2008). United States Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Capital Punishment Statistics. Retrieved October 7, 2008 from http://www.ojp.gov/bjs/cp.htm
Whitaker, T. B. (2007). Minutes Before Six. Cocktail from Hell. Retrieved October 14, 2008 from http://www.minutesbeforesix.com/eight.html
White, D. (2008). The New York Times Company. Pros and Cons of the Death Penalty. Retrieved October 14, 2008 from http://usliberals.about.com/od/deathpenalty/i/DeathPenalty.htm
Woodford, J. (2008). New Voices: Former San Quentin Warden Says Death Penalty “Detracts crucial resources from programs that could truly make our communities safe”. Retrieved October 14, 2008 from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/new-voices-former-san-quentin-warden-says-death-penalty-detracts-crucial-resources-programs-could-tr