The Death Penalty is Immoral and Ineffective

By David Byler ’14

The phrase “An-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye makes everybody blind” is commonly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, and this idea applies to the American justice system. In 1954, the American Prison Association became the American Correctional Association – a largely symbolic move that indicated an increase in focus on rehabilitation of prisoners. In spite of this move, one particularly strong element of a penal justice system remains. That institution is the death penalty. I believe that the death penalty has no place in a society that makes the best possible use of its justice system. In order to make this point, I will outline foundations for justice and a good justice system and show that the death penalty is incompatible with these ideals. Then, I will briefly appeal to ideas imbedded in the American justice system and in conservative thought to bolster my case.

The first task in this debate is defining justice. As long as some level of punishment is part of the justice system, the principle that “the punishment fits the crime” provides the basis for allotting punishments. In other words, the punishment for greatly harming another is large and the punishment for doing less damage is smaller. However, in certain situations, intent and mental health must hold a place in the judgment process. Under these constraints, justice can be defined as exacting the weightiest punishments on rational citizens who execute a plan to greatly harm others, while those who knowingly inflict less damage should be dealt smaller punishments. While this system necessitates that weighty punishments are allotted to the worst offenders, justice itself doesn’t necessitate a death penalty. With that idea in mind, I will describe why a justice system without a death penalty should be adopted.

The justice system should have two purposes: to keep society safe from those who would harm it while making the best possible use of society’s resources. It’s important to note that the idea of “punishment fits the crime” is not explicitly stated in this framework. That’s because fitting a punishment to a crime involves only considering the safety of society at large and proper use of societal resources. To make this point more clear, consider retribution, another standard for allotting punishments. In the context of the death penalty, retribution typically means that if a mentally sound person has executed a plan to commit an egregious crime then the offender deserves to die. When one asks why the offender deserves to die, no independent reason for allotting that penalty is provided. Instead, proponents of the death penalty appeal to the idea that death fits a crime, avoiding the argument altogether. A logical inconsistency is also hidden in these arguments. Nobody advocates punishing rapists with rape or molesting molesters, yet the death penalty is deemed an appropriate response to violent crime. In these ways, retribution is a bad argument for the death penalty. Another argument for the death penalty is that someone who takes away another’s rights, particularly their right to continue living, should have corresponding rights taken away from them. This is just the argument for retribution stated in different terms. The idea that killers give up their right to life advocates for the death penalty without giving an independent justification for allotting that penalty. This argument appeals more to intuition and moral tradition than any identifiable train of logic, and while moral tradition has led people well in the past, it must, like all traditions, be subservient to logic, reasoning, and practical thinking, which are incompatible with the death penalty

In a just society, the greatest penalty should be incarceration for life with the possibility of regaining some liberties. This penalty, when executed properly, would protect society from criminals as effectively as the death penalty. Proponents of the death penalty often claim that certain criminals are a danger to those around them and should be killed to protect the public. This argument makes sense, but carefully implemented life imprisonment garners the same result. If violent prisoners are kept in maximum-security prisons in secluded locations, their ability to directly harm society disappears. This idea is supported by hard evidence. In April, Slate stated that the number of prison escapes has decreased from 14,305 in 1993 to 2,512 in 2008. These numbers are incredibly small considering that the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that there were over 1.5 million prison inmates incarcerated in 2009. While some inmates do escape, the rate of escape is very small and on the decline. The death penalty is thus unnecessary for keeping society safe.

Another common point made for the death penalty is that the government’s resources could be more effectively spent on prisoners who could be rehabilitated than on those who clearly can’t be changed. Even if we put aside the fact that executing a prisoner is often more expensive than letting them serve a life sentence in prison given the cost of the appeals system for those who are sentenced to die, we can still argue against the twofold assumption that this statement is built on. The first part of that assumption is that keeping certain prisoners alive will be a large net expense to society. The second part is that certain criminals permanently surrender their right to continue living upon committing a crime. The first assumption implies that prisoners will neither learn useful skills in prison, nor become sufficiently socialized to partially re-enter society. It’s not difficult to imagine a prison system that uses a combination of psychological evaluations, records of behavior during incarceration, and gravity of committed crimes to reapportion certain rights to prisoners over time. In such a system, if prisoners were reformed to the point that they could re-enter society safely, why couldn’t they be allowed to get a job and earn money? That money could be used to cover that inmate’s expenses while in prison, allowing the inmate enjoy some freedoms while reducing cost to the state. Of course, such a system wouldn’t be perfect – there would be cases in which a criminal used his or her newfound freedom to commit another crime. This shouldn’t annul all the previous benefits mentioned, though. If the justice system learned from its mistakes and used the utmost caution in reapportioning rights to prisoners, the system would eventually improve so that the benefits of repealing the death penalty could be felt with little or no incidence of such tragedies. Additionally, if a prisoner indefinitely continued with his or her unacceptable behaviors, then they could be kept away from society until natural death occurred. The practicality of rehabilitating prisoners rather than killing them is evident.

The second assumption is that prisoners surrender their right to keep living after committing a crime. This assumption was dealt with earlier, when there was no positive reason to say a prisoner should surrender his or her right to life upon committing a crime. Additionally, as stated previously, the death penalty permanently prevents inmates from eventually regaining their freedoms and society from enjoying the benefits of their productivity for no discernable reason.

Before moving on to other arguments against the death penalty, some attention should be given to the idea of the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. It should first be noted that deterrence is difficult to measure, given the low number of executions typically examined in such studies. In “Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate, John Donahue of Stanford and Justin Wolfers of Wharton note that “Sampling from the broader universe of plausible approaches suggests not just reasonable doubt about whether there is any deterrent effect of the death penalty, but profound uncertainty – even about its sign.” Moreover, the American Civil Liberties Union notes that, “states that have abolished capital punishment show no significant changes in either crime or murder rates.” Additionally, those who cite the death penalty as a deterrent often fail to consider if juries will be less likely to convict a person whose sentence is death rather than life imprisonment. The death penalty also fails to deter those who commit crimes of passion. In sum, using deterrence as an argument for the death penalty doesn’t carry the weight of evidence, and so it can be refuted without arguing over its morality.

Marquis de Lafayette said “I shall ask for the abolition of the punishment of death until I have the infallibility of human judgment demonstrated to me.” That is, the death penalty is unjust because it risks and sometimes destroys innocent life. Proponents of the death penalty usually invoke a deceptively simple argument in this scenario – that if we can execute 99 guilty men at the price of executing one innocent man then we should do so. This idea fundamentally conflicts with one of the basic principles of our justice system – “innocent until proven guilty.” The idea that any defendant is presumed innocent until they are proven guilty reveals that given the choice between letting an innocent man and a guilty man go free or punishing them both, we should let both of the men go. In that way, given the choice between executing 99 guilty men and one innocent man or letting them all live, we should let all 100 live. Whether or not “innocent until proven guilty” is a good principle, the death penalty is inconsistent with that key component of the justice system.

The final point I will make in this debate is that the death penalty is more than a moral and philosophical issue – it’s a limited government issue. If the government has the right to execute its own citizens, one’s likelihood of survival is tied partially to the competence of government officials. This is not a conclusive case against the death penalty by itself, but it is an important notion for any moderate or conservative to consider.

These arguments show that the death penalty is not a necessity for justice and is incompatible with the most practical vision for the justice system. The values of pragmatism, assumed innocence, and conservatism urge the abolition of the death penalty. For these reasons, I hope that the death penalty is abolished and that a more reformatory prison system arises in the United States.

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One thought on “The Death Penalty is Immoral and Ineffective

  • December 12, 2011 at 10:01 am

    Thank you for this well-considered argument. I hope it sparks some hearty debate on this topic that so many conservative types have failed to really consider.


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