The Death Penalty Debate in the United States


The future of the human civilization relies on the establishment of laws and codes of conduct that are to be followed by all members of the society. While some people will follow the established norms without any external incentives to do so, not everyone can be trusted upon to follow laws without persuasion. For this reason, the society needs a functional criminal justice system. This system ensures that law and order are preserved by fulfilling retributive and deterrence purposes. Offenders are adequately punished for their crimes and the same punishments serve as a warning to would be future offenders. There are different forms of punishments that the court can issue out to a guilty person. The punishments range from prison sentences to monetary fines. One punishment that stands apart from the others due to its severity is the death penalty. In the US, this punishment is deemed the harshest and it is reserved for the society’s most vicious offenders.

However, the issue of the death penalty is highly divisive with people holding polarized views on whether it should be encouraged or abolished. While opponents of the death penalty feel it is a cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment that serves no useful purpose, its advocates declare that it is a necessary tool in the arsenal of punishment available to judges. This divergence of views concerning capital punishment has led to a long-standing debate on the topic for decades. This paper will seek to address the debate over the death penalty in the US in order to show that this form of punishment plays a useful role in society. The paper will analyze the arguments made for and against capital punishment and demonstrate their respective merits.

Arguments in Support of the Death Penalty

Deterrence Effect

One of the strongest arguments given in support of capital punishment is that it has a plays a major deterrence role. This argument is based on the premise that offenders are punished to discourage others from engaging in the same offenses in future (Sunstein & Vermeule, 2005). As such, while punishments serve the retribution purpose, they also send a message to potential offenders that they will have to face the same dire consequences if they engage in similar offenses. Radelet and Borg (2000) document that according to proponents of the death penalty; the deterrent effect of punishment is best achieved if the punishment issued to offenders is severe enough.

Unquestionably, the death penalty is the severest punishment that a court can mete out to an offender. It therefore stands to reason that this punishment will present the strongest deterrence to committing capital offenses. Some econometric studies indicate that the death penalty indeed does have some deterrent effects (Radelet & Borg, 2000). Byron (2000) notes that the death penalty is mostly issued to individuals who commit premeditated murder. There is a well-established negative relationship between executions and murder incident. Researchers reveal that between 1979 and 2004, each execution carried out in the US could be associated with 71 fewer murders in the year when the execution was carried out (Kirchgassner, 2011). It can therefore be surmised that the death penalty actually saves lives. Hardened ex-convicts who do not fear long prison sentences will think twice about committing a crime if they know that they might be executed for it. A good percentage of Americans are in favor of capital punishment because of the deterrent effects they believe it has.

However, this argument is not universally embraced by all sides in the death penalty debate. One sustained argument against the death penalty is that long-term incarceration is a better deterrent than death. This argument goes on to state that the offender is forced to live and face the consequences of his mistake. In addition to this, advocates of this argument argue that executions are immoral since they set a bad example for the general population. Opponents of capital punishment claim that it is absurd for the state to kill a person in an attempt to show the population that killing is wrong (Steiker & Jordan, 2010). Abolitionists claim that the death penalty has little curbing effect on homicide rates when compared to long-term sentencing of the offender. A survey carried out to establish the opinion of law enforcement officials revealed that two thirds of them did not believe that capital punishment significantly reduced the number of homicides in the US (Kirchgassner, 2011). Defenders of the death penalty demonstrate that there is strong econometric evidence that capital punishment has a considerable deterrence effect. The reason why the current effect of the death penalty is negligible is because very few incidents of executions occur. Shepherd (2005) illustrates that for the deterrence effect to be monumental, the number of executions must increase since there is a relationship between deterrence effect and actual executions.

Incapacitation of Offenders

Another potent argument in favor of the death penalty is that this punishment incapacitates the offender ensuring that he/she will never commit the vicious crime he/she was convicted for again. According to this view, the death penalty is the best protection for the public against recidivist crimes since the convicted offender cannot re-offend once his sentence has been carried out. Without the death penalty, offenders would either be required to spend many years in prison of even imprisoned for life. In either case, the prisoner is alive and he/she is capable of engaging in criminal activity. Sunstein and Vermeule (2005) assert that there is a real risk of recidivist murder if the offender is released in the future. Opponents of the death penalty have offered “life in prison without the possibility of parole” as an alternative to the death penalty (Radelet & Borg, 2000). This option ensures that there is no recidivism since the offenders are never released into society. However, the offender might be involved in prison homicides during his sentence. Capital punishment therefore provides the most effective safeguard against future offenses from the offender.

The incapacitation argument is rejected by opponents of capital punishment who argue that the risk of reoffending is low. Opponents argue that capital punishment ignores the rehabilitation capability of the country’s correctional facilities. According to these advocates for the abolition of the death penalty, prisoners have been known to reform during because of their long prison terms. One study reveals that after the death sentences of about 558 people in the US had been invalidated by the Supreme Court in 1972, only about 1% of this population went on to kill again (Radelet & Borg, 2000). While this demonstrates that the odds of repeating crimes such as murder are indeed low, the odds still exist and this is unacceptable. Even opponents of capital punishment admit that there is a risk of individuals who are incarcerated for capital offences recommitting the crime. Capital punishment is unique to all other forms of punishment in that it irrevocably protects the society from recidivism. The incapacitation argument offered in support of the death penalty is therefore valid in its claim that the death sentence will serve the society by permanently getting rid of the most vicious criminals.

Retribution Function

Advocacy of the death penalty has grown under the justification of retribution. As has been noted in this paper, one of the roles of punishing offenders is to provide retribution. For effective retribution to be served, the punishment must be seen to fit the crime. Byron (2000) declares that for retribution to be served, a punishment of equal severity to the crime should be given. If the punishment given for a particular crime is perceived to be lenient or disproportionate to the crime committed, there will be a sense of injustice by the victims or their family (Licht, 2008). Without the death penalty, offenders who commit grievous crimes such as violent murder would only be imprisoned for life. Most members of the public are of the opinion that the alternative to capital punishment, life without parole, is unsatisfactory when dealing with individuals who are guilty of vicious crimes such as violent murder. The alternative punishment does not fit the crime and retribution is not served to the victim of the violent offender.

In addition to this, the friends and relatives of the victim cannot feel a sense of justice when the criminal responsible for their pain and suffering has only been given a jail sentence by the court. When long sentences are given to murderers, the family of the victim is exposed to future heartache (Sangiorgio, 2011). After serving the sentence for many years, the convict is eligible to parole hearings. The family of the victim is forced to attend the parole hearing requests that may extend for many years. This prevents the wounds of the family from healing as they are reminded of the grievous crime against their loved one during such procedures. Advocates of capital punishment assert that the death penalty is the only means through which families of homicide victims can attain satisfactory retribution.

Protection Against Extrajudicial Killings

A historical yet still valid argument in support of the death penalty is that it serves as a necessary antidote to extrajudicial executions. The US has a shameful history of public extrajudicial executions mostly carried out against black men who were presumed to be guilty of some offense against whites. The common implementation of these executions was through lynching. These extrajudicial killings were carried out by angry mobs who felt that the only just punishment for the offense was death. In the early decades of the twentieth century, ten states abolished capital punishment. However, eight of the ten states were prompted to bring back capital punishment only a short while after the initial abolition. While there were other reasons behind this reinstatement, Steiker and Jordan (2010) state, “The most important common triggering event in reinstatement of the death penalty was the prevalence of extrajudicial killings” (p.649). The state authorities were forced to acknowledge that the death penalty was a necessary punishment for some crimes. Without it, individuals were more inclined to take the law into their own hands since they felt that they would not get adequate retribution through the justice system. Without the death penalty, the society might take vengeance on murderers through summarily executions.

The death penalty therefore serves to strengthen the credibility of the justice system in the eyes of the people. Licht (2008) admits that when retributive penalties are deemed inadequate, individuals may engage in revenge, which is outside the rule of law. As such, the death penalty is necessary for the sake of social order since it ensures that the court is empowered to give punishments that are proportional to even the most vicious crimes.

Public Opinion

Public support for capital punishment has also guided the death penalty debate. In spite of persistent and impassioned opposition to capital punishment in the US, the public opinion is still highly in favor of this punishment. Marquis (2005) reveals that in spite of the intense advocacy by death penalty opponents, virtually all groups of Americans support the imposition of the death penalty in some cases. Events over the last decade have led to the death penalty gaining significant merit with many Americans. Marquis (2005) states that the Washington-area sniper shootings of 2002 and the 9/11 terror attacks demonstrated to many people that there were still crimes that deserved the death penalty. Obviously, public support for an activity does not necessarily mean that it is justified. However, in this particular instance, the significant public support is a positive indication that the citizens of the country feel that in some cases, justice can only be served if the offender is sentenced to death.

Opposition to the Death Penalty

Cost Considerations

The death penalty debate has also been guided by the fiscal costs involved in its execution. While advocates of the death penalty once viewed this as a cheap method of dealing with inmates as opposed to housing them in prisons for long terms, this view has changed radically. Until the 1970s, capital punishment was cheaper than life imprisonment since capital cases were tried in the same manner as other cases involving non-capital serious felonies (Steiker & Jordan, 2010). After conviction, the expenses of an offender sentenced to death were also modest. In addition to this, the time between pronouncement of the death sentence and the actual execution was very brief. Steiker and Jordan (2010) elaborate that a person sentenced to death was executed in weeks or at most months after the judgment was passed.

However, these conditions have changed dramatically over the last three decades. Research has firmly established that implementation of modern capital punishment is several times more expensive than the alternative life without parole punishment (Radelet & Borg, 2000). The high cost of the modern death penalty system comes from all the procedures that have to be followed before the convict is finally executed. Death penalty trials are expensive and complex affairs that may span for over a decade. In capital crime cases, the prosecutor and defender are required to be thorough and expert witnesses are utilized. Once the sentence has been passed, the convicted person is entitled to numerous appeals that cost the State significant money. Radelet and Borg (2000) explain that the expensive process is seen as necessary to ensure that innocent persons are not sentenced to death. Opponents of the death penalty assert that the society would be better served if capital punishment was abolished and the money channeled to other pursuits such as reducing high crime rates or assisting the families of murder victims.

Advocates of capital punishment state that cost considerations should not be used to justify abolishing a necessary form of punishment. Steiker and Jordan (2010) observe that during the colonial era, the society demonstrated a willingness to incur the costs associated with the death penalty since people realized the valuable functions that this punishment served. Defenders of the death penalty therefore argue that the public should be willing to incur the high costs associated with this form of punishment since in overall, it is beneficial to the society.

Miscarriage of Justice

Arguably, the most solid argument against the death penalty is that it can result in the greatest miscarriages of justice. While all efforts are taken to ensure that only guilty parties are punished, the fact is that the criminal justice system is not flawless. Wrongful convictions are inevitable in the Court system. Aronson and Cole (2009) conclude that over the past decade, “innocence has emerged as perhaps the dominant issue in death penalty discourse with an unprecedented effect on the debate about capital punishment” (p. 604). Abolitionists argue that doing away with the death sentence gives the innocent party a chance to fight the wrongful conviction and in some cases acquire his/her freedom. If the death sentence is carried out, there is no hope that the innocent person will ever receive vindication. Bradley (2005) documents that the landmark clemency offered to 167 death row inmates by the Governor of Illinois, George Ryan in 2003 was motivated in part by the danger or wrongful convictions. The governor stated that he could no longer support death row because of the error in determining guilt. Researchers admit that there is a possibility that innocent individuals will be executed if the death penalty continues to be used (Hoffman, 2005). The justice system is not perfect and it is capable of convicting innocent people and having them executed.

However, advocates of the death penalty declare that this realization should not lead to a crisis of confidence in capital punishment. So long as human beings are responsible for operating the justice system, mistakes are bound to be made (Gottschalk, 2009). This must not be used as a basis for doing away with an effective form of punishment. As has been noted, death penalty cases are the most thorough. Most States dedicate many resources to capital cases to ensure that the death penalty is only allowed where “the defendant’s guilt can be proven to a moral certainty” (Bradley, 2005, p. 373). The offender is given a chance to prove his innocence through many appeals and the court is very meticulous when dealing with these cases. It should also be considered that while the death penalty might lead to the execution of some innocent people, lack of the death penalty leads to the death of other innocent people because the guilty can commit murder in the future if they are not executed.

The argument that capital punishment is irrevocable is also disputed since it fails to consider that all other forms of punishment issued by the court are also irrevocable. Yost (2011) admits that capital punishment is irrevocable in that a wrongly executed person cannot be raised from the dead. In this sense, the penalty suffered cannot be undone even if the court realizes that it had made a mistake. However, on the same note, all other kinds of punishment are irrevocable. If the court wrongfully sentences a person to many years in prison, time cannot be reversed to correct the wrong when the court recognizes its mistake. Yost (2011) therefore argues that abolitionists should not use the argument of irrevocability as a reason why the death penalty should be abolished.

This risk of miscarriage of justice has been used by abolitionists to fuel an anti-capital punishment revolution in the US. Proponents of the death penalty accuse abolitionists of disregarding the justice that the victims of the crime deserve. One strong advocate of the death penalty, Prosecutor Joshua Marquis declares that the shift towards presenting convicts as innocent martyrs is wrong. Marquis states, “Nothing excuses making the victims nameless and faceless, making martyrs out of murderers, and turning killers into victims” (p.521). This accusation against the opponents of the death penalty is not unfounded since those opposed to capital punishment argue that the accused of capital murder receive poor legal representation, and that many people on death row are innocent.

Arbitrariness and Bias

The racial bias and arbitrariness exhibited when imposing the death penalty has led to strong calls for the abolition of this punishment. Ideally, the Criminal Justice System is supposed to pass judgments in a fair and just manner. There should not be any arbitrariness, racial, or class bias when issuing punishment to offenders who have committed the same crime and are being judged under the same penal code. However, this is not what happens in US courts. A person’s race plays a role in determining whether they receive the death penalty or not. Radelet and Borg (2000) document that for comparable crimes, “the death penalty is between three and four times more likely to be imposed in cases in which the victim is white rather than black” (p.47). This correlation between race and death sentencing in the US is corroborated by Babcock (2007) who notes that the odds that an offender will receive a death sentence are nearly four times higher for black defendants. Opponents of the death penalty argue that its abolition will effectively remove the problem of racial bias that currently faces the administration of capital punishment.

Admittedly, the problem of race and class bias when issuing the death sentence is of great concern. However, the government recognizes these inequalities and steps have been taken to address these problems. State governments are increasingly appointing competent attorneys in capital offenses. Marquis (2005) explains that over the last two decades, elaborate public defender systems that are made up of competent lawyers with vast resources at their disposal have been established. Such officers ensure that the offender is provided with the best representation. In addition to this, thorough and stringent procedures have to be met to ensure that the death penalty is not given in an arbitrary manner. The bias and arbitrariness that previously plagued capital punishment has been significantly reduced making it possible for a judge to use this form of punishment in a fair and constitutionally approved manner.

Brutality of Capital Punishment

Opponents of the death penalty have argued that this form of punishment is barbaric in nature and should no longer be permitted in a civilized society. Capital punishment entails putting the offender to death for his crimes. Abolitionists argue that executions in the name of retribution should not be carried out in a civilized society. Some of the methods used to kill the offender are gruesome and the condemned person suffers considerably during the execution process (Steiker & Jordan, 2010). In addition to this, there are cases where the chosen method of execution malfunctions and the offender suffers from excruciating pain before finally dying. Opponents of the death penalty argue that this punishment is a violation of the human rights of the offender. This argument is right in that the death penalty does lead to the termination of the life of a person.

However, the death penalty is only imposed for extreme crimes and the execution is carried out in a humane manner. Proponents of the death penalty demonstrate that this form of punishment is only imposed on criminals who have committed grievous crimes such as murder (Sangiorgio, 2011). This ensures that the death penalty is carried out in accordance with Article 6 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which stipulates that capital punishment should only be meted out for the most serious crimes (Babcock, 2007). In the US the predominantly used method of execution is the lethal injection, which is administered by a qualified professional. This method is humane since the condemned person is injected with an anesthetic before the lethal concoction of drugs used to induce a heart attack is pumped into his veins. Death therefore occurs in an almost painless manner.

The International Community

The international community has to some extent influenced the debate over the death penalty in the US. Babcock (2007) acknowledges that while the death penalty debate was once strictly a matter of domestic policy, it has shifted into the international domain. On the international platform, the move towards abolishing capital punishment has gained ground over the years. The broader international community regards this subject as an issue of human rights and therefore seeks to restrict the use of capital punishment and promote abolition. For this reason, the gap between the US and other Western nations on the issue of the death penalty continues to grow through the years. Babcock (2007) explains that many human rights organizations and even prominent intergovernmental organizations such as the EU consider the death penalty to be a pressing human rights issue that needs to be addressed. These opponents of capital punishment have been proactive in persuading countries to abolish the death penalty.

While international advocacy does not control the analysis of the American Supreme Court, it serves as an instructive tool in the Court’s operations. International law has often been used as a basis for evaluating the prudence of US laws. Babcock (2007) asserts, “The Court has long looked to the practices of the international community in evaluating whether a punishment is cruel and unusual” (p.3). It can therefore be surmised that the debate on the death penalty will be influenced by international practice on the subject.


The death penalty debate continues to be one of the most polarized issues in the country. For many decades, proponents and opponents of capital punishment have continued to offer impassioned arguments in support of their side. This paper demonstrates that while the people of the US have yet to reach a consensus on the question of the death penalty, there is still strong support for capital punishment. The paper highlighted some of the strong arguments given in support of and against capital punishment. To the proponents of capital punishment, the death penalty provides maximum deterrence, retribution, and protects the society from recidivism. On the other hand, abolitionists claim that the death penalty is a costly process that might is plagued by racial bias and can lead to the wrongful execution of an innocent person. The paper has noted that the issue that has gained significant attention over the last decade is the risk of wrongfully executing an innocent person. The international community has also favored the abolition of the death penalty.

However, the paper reveals that there is still strong support for the death penalty in the US. The government has taken steps to ensure that capital punishment is only imposed for the most heinous crimes and only after a thorough trial to establish the guilt of the offender. These actions have invalidated the claims of bias and miscarriage of justice issued by abolitionists. For many Americans, the death penalty is not an unjust, excessive or unnecessary punishment. Instead, it is a useful punishment that enables the court to serve punishment, retribution, and deterrence for the most vicious crimes. It can therefore be expected that defenders of the death sentence will continue to support this form of punishment for many years to come.


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DemoEssays. "The Death Penalty Debate in the United States." December 24, 2022.