Researchers argue that the death penalty violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It produces severe mental and physical trauma for people on death row, including prolonged solitary confinement and anxiety caused by lengthy periods awaiting execution.
Moreover, research shows that the death penalty does not deter murders. It also costs society a great deal of money to administer.
The Implications of the Death Penalty
Proponents of capital punishment argue that it deters crime by telling potential perpetrators that life will be lost if they commit murder. However, the criminal legal system is not foolproof; innocent people are wrongfully convicted and executed yearly. This is due to various factors, including inadequate legal representation, faulty evidence, eyewitness misidentification, and prejudice and discrimination by judges, prosecutors, and juries.
In addition, those who support the death penalty argue that punishing those who commit the most egregious crimes is morally right. They further assert that society must do everything it can to promote the balance of good over evil.
The legal rules and administrative procedures governing federal capital cases provide several safeguards against racial or ethnic bias. As described in Part I of this report, these procedures limit the chances that U.S. Attorneys submit to the review procedure to those for which the death penalty is a legally authorized sanction. Moreover, the augmentation of data analyzed in this report suggests that, within the broader universe of potential capital cases, decisions by U.S. Attorneys to seek the death penalty are not made in any more significant proportion of cases involving Black or Hispanic defendants than White defendants. This is not inconsistent with the theory that the differences in geographic disparities may be due to a tendency of U.S. Attorney personnel in some districts to have a greater desire to secure the death penalty for minority defendants than would be the case if their actions were independent of such desires.
The Costs of the Death Penalty
In addition to the harms listed above, the death penalty is a tremendous burden on society. It costs states millions of dollars yearly for pretrial and trial level defense, state/federal appeals, incarcerating death row inmates awaiting execution, and other administrative and housing costs associated with capital cases.
The costs of the death penalty also vary widely by state and jurisdiction. For example, in California, death penalty trials require up to 3.4 times the number of attorneys and witnesses than comparable non-death case proceedings. This reflects that there are more in-depth investigations, including expert testimony, in capital cases than non-death penalty trials.
Another significant cost is the emotional toll on the families of those convicted of capital murder. A recent Texas After Violence Project report found that Americans with a family member on death row are more likely to suffer from severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder than those with no family members.
Finally, the death penalty is incredibly costly to the federal government. The Supreme Court has found that prosecuting a death-penalty case costs significantly more than bringing a similar non-death-penalty case to trial. This is mainly because of the increased scrutiny given to these cases and that prosecutors must be careful not to commit bias violations when seeking the death penalty inadvertently.
The Benefits of the Death Penalty
The death penalty has many costs and does not serve the interests of society. First, it wastes lives. Those sentenced to die spend their lives on death row, unable to contribute anything to the community. Second, it disproportionately targets people experiencing poverty and members of minorities. In addition, there is a high error rate in capital cases, and innocent people are executed for crimes they did not commit.
Proponents of the death penalty argue that it benefits society by deterring murder and other serious crimes. However, research does not support this claim. Murder rates are higher in states where the death penalty is used than in those without.
Furthermore, the death penalty undermines our values by cheapening life. By allowing the state to execute convicted murderers, we implicitly say that their lives are worth less than those who have not committed murder. It is, therefore, our duty to abolish the death penalty, which imposes such enormous costs and brings little in return. We work at a global level to promote international standards against the use of the death penalty and to strengthen national and regional efforts to abolish it. This includes targeted advocacy and campaign-based projects in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Central Asia, and North America regions, as well as support for global, regional, and national anti-death penalty initiatives.
The Final Words
The death penalty wastes human lives. It also destroys the productive contributions those individuals would have made to society if allowed to live. Moreover, juries may mistakenly impose the death penalty on innocent persons. In addition, the execution process itself can be painful and distressing. As such, the death penalty has significant costs that should be considered when assessing its morality.
Even if the overall benefits of capital punishment outweigh the costs, it is not clear that the death penalty is morally permissible. The central philosophical question involves the amount or kind of liability that is ethically acceptable for murder. Classical considerations of lex talionis and recent retributivist approaches that involve a right to life or a conception of fairness have been unable to justify the penalty as proportional to murder.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that some prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty in cases involving minority defendants or individuals of lower socio-economic status. Therefore, the death penalty may be applied in a way that violates fundamental societal values and legal principles that condemn discrimination based on race or socio-economic status. Fortunately, existing Justice Department procedures are designed to prevent racial or ethnic bias from influencing recommendations and decisions by review committees and the Attorney General regarding whether to pursue capital charges.