Capital punishment in the United States has undergone a series of drastic transformations in the twentieth century. At the beginning of the century, executions were relatively frequent. People were executed for a relatively wide variety of crimes (Haines 1). Over the next three decades, the death penalty was used with decreasing frequency and was restricted, in practice and sometimes in the statutes, to fewer and fewer crimes.
The issue of capital punishment is controversial and debatable one involving different views and perspectives on effectives and protective role of this type of punishment. “Since then hundreds of defendants have been sentenced to death, and a number of them have been executed. But the debate over the death penalty has never ended” (Devine 637). Thesis Statistical results and research findings unveil that capital punishment is an ineffective measure against high crime rates and violent criminal behavior.
Personal Sociological Imagination
Personally, I suppose that capital punishment is ineffective and illegal because it violates rights and freedoms of people. Capital punishment threatens innocent people because of a judicial mistake. Capital punishment becomes an emotional distress for inmates waiting for punishment. In turn, it causes the inmates to suffer considerable and unnecessary.
Other inmates are just plain angry, and responded by arguing that the punishment is unfair. These problems range from the relatively ‘simple’ to the extraordinarily complex, and can cause varying degrees of perplexity and distress in those who encounter them.
For instance, some moral problems are relatively easy to resolve and may cause little if any distress to those involved; other problems, however, may be extremely difficult or even impossible to resolve, and may cause a great deal of moral stress and distress for those encountering them. Many inmates wait for capital punishment during several years, so influenced by emotional distress and spiritual suffering, their physical conditions worsen. Feeling of guilt and regret can lead to psychological disorders and sufferings. This event is so severe that the term trauma is more appropriate. Some of inmates become “mad” suffering from various forms of mental illness, but who have come into contact with the justice system because of violations of the law (Hines 139).
Influenced by the feeling of guilt and emotional sufferings, some of inmates refuse to appeal the second time and prove their innocence. It seems to them that they have nothing to lose. They may look bad compared with other offenders, but in the criminal justice system, they appear to be rather insignificant. For them, appeals to court and the prospect of a jury trial result in more sufferings than they would receive by remaining in prison. “For example, opinion surveys that revealed unexpected amounts of ambivalence and discomfort with capital punishment often went virtually unnoticed” (Haines 98).
It is insufficient to categorically conclude that having a case processed by court is decidedly better than having a criminal court receive and possibly hear the case. By the same token, one cannot say that criminal court processing of an offense is better than court processing, in any absolute sense. There are advantages and disadvantages associated with both systems, and each must be considered in order to appreciate fully the implications for affected offenders. “The argument presented above begs an obvious question: if victim autonomy warrants dispositive force, should it exert identical influence when a murder victim memorializes her wish that the death penalty be sought? (Logan 41).
Capital punishment affects relatives and spouses, mothers and fathers, children and wives of offenders. It causes great emotional distress and envy to the state, law system and criminal justice. The most terrible is that the whole family is waiting for death of ‘beloved’ one during 3-4 years. It can lead to stress and depression, heart disease and weight loss. Many children feel envy to the state which ‘assigns’ so severe form of punishment.
Contemporary discomfort with the death penalty is further revealed by the reversal of verdicts of guilty for technical errors which to laymen and lawyers both would be insubstantial were it not for the fact that to permit the judgment to stand would result in the ending of a life. So committed is the society to the maintenance of life that it does not permit the life of a hopeless invalid to be taken in order to end the greatest of pain. If society’s respect for life denies men the right to take life in order to prevent or end pain, or because one is tired of life, surely the state should not be permitted to take a life so as to punish for past behavior (Hines 153)
There is also evidence of a compelling nature that the death penalty is more likely to be imposed upon one who is poor, regardless of his race, than upon one who has significant financial resources. For example, a rich man accused of a crime may avoid the death penalty by employing legal counsel and compensating him fully for the excessive time necessary to pursue the multiple remedies available to those under penalty of death.
A poor man, while given the right to counsel, has only that counsel which is volunteered, or which is either compelled or compensated by the state. While such publicly provided counsel is almost always dedicated, it is an avoidance of reality to believe that such counsel can give the kind, range, and detail of service which can come from those compensated at the usual rate paid the most competent lawyers of our time. To make punishment of the irrevocable and final nature of death depend upon the availability of funds is clearly a denial of equal protection to the man whose funds are inadequate or nonexistent (Devine 637).
Because the poor man and the member of the minority group are the most likely to be the victims of a death penalty, the punishment is, as to the rest of society, not only cruel, but also unusual. It is, for most members of the society, a punishment that the society for reasons of conscience refuses to inflict. The irreversibility of the death penalty means that error discovered after the penalty has been imposed cannot be corrected. Thus one who suffers the death penalty, and subsequently is found to have been improperly convicted, has been denied due process of law (Devine 637).
Public Sociological Imagination
From the standpoint of public sociological imagination, capital punishment is a symbolic response by the American public to the violent crime rate, there appears to be little likelihood that the death penalty debate will be resolved soon. This is especially true because violent crime rates have remained high in the United States relative both to levels earlier in this century and to those of other industrialized countries. Indeed, during the 1990s, although the overall crime rate was growing much more slowly than in previous decades, it still was at an all-time high. Homicide rates were 46 percent higher than they had been in 1960 (Haines 13).
Aggravated assaults reported to police were up 83 percent, and as a whole, serious violent crimes such as rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and homicide were up 57 percent (Haines 12). Less comforting still, just like twenty five years ago, another baby boom is approaching its high-crime years. As anti-death penalty advocates increased the number and quality of appeals, the Supreme Court ruled on important constitutional issues in a series of fluid interpretations that reflected the increasingly complex nature of the capital punishment debate. Much of the increase in crime reflected fundamental changes in the way people lived their lives.
For states grappling with both the problems of violent crime and a public perception that the criminal justice system fails to deal adequately with such crime, life-without-parole appears to offer a viable alternative. Life-without-parole is a punishment that does exactly what it says and adds certainty to punishment that the death penalty and regular life sentences sorely lack (Haines 143).
The Supreme Court and lower courts have repeatedly affirmed life-without-parole’s constitutionality, and a majority of states have employed life-without-parole in a variety of sentencing schemes. The availability of life-without-parole as punishment for the most heinous and violent murderers displays both an implacable hardness against the wanton taking of human life and a sensitivity to the inherent value of all human life. Life-without-parole is employed effectively as a prosecutorial weapon against murder, and potentially saves money and lives — the lives of convicted murderers who would otherwise languish on death row as well as the innocent victims of paroled murderers who may kill again.
These savings entail a cost, however, and incarcerating violent murderers for the rest of their lives poses some serious problems. “An estimate by the Legislative Research Department was even higher, projecting annual expenses of $10.9 million for capital defense costs alone, plus an additional $1.3 to $3 million more for postconviction costs. Forty-year “life” sentences would cost an estimated $323,500” (Haines 86).
If society, however, intends to use prisons to incarcerate, isolate, and punish criminals, then adequate planning and foresight can address potential overcrowding problems, needs of elderly inmates, and security risks. “The underlying theme in much of the current death penalty debate is that any human system is by definition subject to mistake. As a result, no one can guarantee that, with all the reviews and cross checks that man can devise, we will never execute an innocent person” (Devine 637).
When compared to the current, more prevalent practice of sentencing without imposing capital punishment, and the paroling of murderers supposedly serving life sentences, life-without parole’s philosophical and practical advantages outweigh its potential problems. “Pursuit of the death penalty at the behest of the victim obviously puts the criminal defendant in jeopardy, unlike implementing a request for mercy such as occurs with a signed declaration of life, which poses no such conflict” (Logan 41).
Even today, most states adhere to some version of laws, which holds that if a person knew, at the time of committing the act, that what he or she was doing was wrong, then that person was sane enough to be held criminally responsible. Public and political support for procedural reform was spurred on by dramatic examples of execution delays involving undisputedly guilty convicted murderers.
As old arguments against the death penalty began to have less sway, and old tactics to forestall executions became less effective, abolitionists began to explore new issues in and out of court. For example, under what, if any, circumstances should health care professionals such as psychiatrists treat condemned prisoners when their recovery would make them eligible for execution? Is it ethical for physicians to participate in executions when state laws require their involvement in order for the execution to take place? One commentator even urged attorneys to avoid taking on death penalty appeals on the grounds that, without competent counsel, condemned prisoners couldn’t receive due process — and thus could never be executed (Cottrol 1641).
Contrary to what many people assumed, it actually was much more expensive to execute a convicted murderer than to impose lifelong incarceration. Additional support for abolitionists came from the work of academics whose research challenged a number of assumptions about the effects and effectiveness of capital punishment and who attempted to influence public thinking by summarizing in a thoughtful and accessible fashion what was known about the topic. “Public support for the death penalty may be a function of current crime rates, and as such, causation may run from homicides to executions” (Donohue and Wolfers 791).
Whatever views one may have on the efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent, it clearly has an undesirable impact on the administration of criminal justice. Capital cases take longer to litigate at the trial level; the selection of a jury often requires several days, and each objection or point of law requires inordinate deliberation because of the irreversible consequences of error. In addition, the inherent sensationalism of a trial for life distorts the factfinding process and increases the danger that public sentiment will be aroused for the defendant, regardless of his guilt of the crime charged.
Finally there is evidence that the imposition of the death sentence and the exercise of dispensing power by the courts and the executive follow discriminatory patterns. The death sentence is disproportionately imposed and carried out on the poor, the Negro, and the members of unpopular groups. Some members of the Commission favor the abolition of capital punishment, while other members favor its retention. “Although life and death requests might be indistinguishable from the perspective of individual decedents, prosecutorial deference to the latter raises significant constitutional concern” (Logan 41).
Some would support its abolition if more adequate safeguards against the release of dangerous offenders were devised. All members of the Commission agree that the present situation in the administration of the death penalty in many States is intolerable for the reasons stated above. If a defendant wishes to testify in support of the defense of insanity or in mitigation of what he is charged with doing, he can do so only if he surrenders his right to be free from self-incrimination.
Once he takes the stand he can be cross-examined not only as respects the crime charged but also on other misdeeds. In Ohio impeachment covers a wide range of subjects: prior convictions for felonies and statutory misdemeanors, pending indictments, prior convictions in military service, and dishonorable discharges. Once he testifies he can be recalled for cross-examination in the State’s case in rebuttal (Haines 46).
I suppose that life-without-parole as a punishment for murder should be considered on its own merits. Much of the public’s perception of the sanction’s potential problems stems from its possible, increased use on criminals other than violent murderers. While these uses are valid and often may be justified, life-without-parole as a punishment for murder accrues certain distinct philosophical advantages that are not shared by the sanction’s other uses.
Like many opponents of capital punishment I suppose that life-without-parole is a crucial step toward abolishing the death penalty. While this argument seems sound in light of public opinion polls concerning the death penalty, the sanction also can be used effectively in tandem with capital punishment to benefit criminal justice systems and to protect citizens from violent criminals. All states that employ or are considering adopting some form of life without-parole also should continue to study the sanction’s effects on the criminal justice and corrections systems and on prisoners themselves (Haines 140). Extensive additional information is still necessary to measure adequately the long-term effects of the sanction.
Existing information, however, indicates that life-without-parole works as an effective sanction against violent murderers. It protects society better than a normal life sentence that allows parole and is a swifter and surer penalty in most cases than the death penalty. Life-without-parole is a hard sanction, consigning individuals to live their natural lives behind bars, but it accurately reflects society’s disdain for the taking of human life. Life-without-parole offers a legitimate alternative to capital punishment that provides a small measure of hope to inmates. Life-without-parole deserves greater use as a sanction against society’s worst killers (Haines 101-102).
Simple fact is that the death penalty has been a gross failure. Beyond its horror and incivility, it has neither protected the innocent nor deterred the wicked. The recurrent spectacle of publicly sanctioned killing has cheapened human life and dignity without the redeeming grace which comes from justice meted out swiftly, evenly, humanely (Donohue and Wolfers 791). The death penalty is invoked too randomly, too irregularly, too unpredictably, and too tardily to be defended as an effective example warning away wrong-doers. Nor is the death penalty to be explained as society’s ultimate weapon of desperation against the unregenerate and perverse.
The study of executions over a 15-year period produces the startling facts that of 110 condemned cases, 49% of those executed had never previously suffered a prior felony; that 75% of them came from families which had been broken by divorce, separation or otherwise when the condemned was still in his teens. I say, that if this most drastic of sanctions could be said substantially to serve the ends of legal justice by adding to our safety and security, it would deserve some greater place in our respect. No available data from any place or time gives support to the grand argument that the presence or absence of the death penalty exerts any substantial effect upon the incidence of homicide.
In none of these states has the homicide rate increased, and indeed, in comparison with other states their rates seem somewhat lower. These rates are lower not because of the death penalty but because of particular social organization, composition of population, economic and political conditions. Some recent decisions of our state courts suggest another criterion. Under this view capital punishment may be said to comprise unconstitutional cruelty if that institution cannot secure a proper function of society within civilized standards (Cottrol 1641). Certainly its function cannot be that of rehabilitation, nor can it be that of confinement, a function which is thoroughly and efficiently served by imprisonment. The burden is to show that the death penalty constitutes, as compared to life imprisonment, and differentially, a deterrent upon future criminal activities.
Capital punishment is ineffective because it fails to meet its main goals: deterrence and decreased crime rates. In spite of the sustained efforts of abolitionists in the United States and abroad, the United States -which tends to see itself as a leader in the field of human rights -remained one of the only democracies in the world to allow the execution of prisoners. A strong majority of Americans polled reported that they were in favor of capital punishment.
Other studies indicated that even more people might favor life-without-parole over executions if convicted murderers also were made to work while in prison to pay restitution to the families of their victims. Thus, statistical results and studies show that capital punishment does not protect a society and small communities form high crimes rate and violence.
- Cottrol, R.J. The Death Penalty: An American History. Stanford Law Review, 56, (2004): 1641.
- Devine, R.A. Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer’s Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 95 (2005): 637.
- Donohue, J.J., Wolfers, J. Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate. Stanford Law Review, 58 (2005): 791.
- Geraghty, T.F. Trying to Understand America’s Death Penalty System and Why We Still Have It. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 94 (2003): 209.
- Haines, H. H. Against Capital Punishment: The Anti-Death Penalty Movement in America, 1972-1994. Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Logan, W.A. Declaring Life at the Crossroads of Death: Victims’ Anti-Death Penalty Views and Prosecutors’ Charging Decisions. Criminal Justice Ethics, 18 (1999); 41.