The death penalty as a mean of capital punishment is a matter of active debate nowadays as there many diverse opinions on whether it should be legal and how it should be applied. Most democratic countries have restricted the death penalty as a cruel and unusual form of punishment that no convicted criminals deserve, no matter what crime they have committed. However, some countries, including the United States, still implement capital punishment in particular legal cases. The death penalty is an essential element of the criminal justice system, and it significantly influences not just this system but also the crime level overall. The legal status of capital punishment is a reliable tool for controlling the crime rate. The death penalty should be legal and applied in cases of cruel violations of fundamental human rights since capital punishment is an efficient crime-containing instrument.
First of all, the death penalty’s necessity can be explained by how it changes people’s attitude to law and crime. After capital punishment was abolished in the United States in 1972, the Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976, when the case of Gregg v. Georgia was in process (Steiker and Steiker 300). Although this case is more than forty years old, the explanation given by the court sounds reasonable even now. The case text states that anarchy comes “when people begin to believe that organized society is unwilling or unable to impose upon criminal offenders the punishment they deserve” (qtd. in Steiker and Steiker 305). In many respects, the death penalty is not just a form of punishing crime but also an efficient instrument of containing it.
The death penalty debate is active among scholars and the general population. According to recent studies, people tend to provide more support to the legal status of capital punishment when the crime rate seems to be problematic (Kort-Butler and Ray 5). This relation demonstrates that people believe in the power of the death penalty as an instrument to reduce the crime rate. Potential criminals may evaluate their readiness to commit a crime by analyzing if they are willing to take corresponding risks. Those risks may be different, meaning that people who want to commit an illegal act would assess the consequences first and ask themselves whether it is worth it. Therefore, if the death penalty has a legal status in a country, citizens of that country will be more afraid to take actions that can be punished by death. In that sense, capital punishment should be legal not just to take the lives of the most dangerous criminals but to prevent them from committing unforgettable crimes.
As it is known, one of the most popular justifications of the death penalty abolishment is the fact that capital punishment violates the right to life, which is mainly considered fundamental. However, the crime of murder violates that right as well, making it debatable whether people who have committed murder should be treated as those who deserve the right to life. Half of the 1991 American survey participants who favored the death penalty justified it with the “a life for a life” principle (qtd. in Rancourt et al. 541). If a person believes they have a right to take a life, there should be no reason to judge that person based on the opinion that their own right to life is sacred and fundamental. People’s basic values should be an essential influencing factor in the process of deciding the punishment of a criminal. Nonetheless, those principles should be reviewed based on the defendant’s attitude, meaning that people should be judged according to the amount of respect they show to other people’s rights and values.
Furthermore, fundamental rights should be used as a measurement tool to identify criminal actions which are supposed to be punished by death sentence. When the question of the legal status of the death penalty is settled, another question eventually arises regarding people who deserve to be sentenced to death. Aside from murder, other ruthless crimes cruelly violate people’s fundamental rights, such as rape. There were many cases involving the crime of rape and the subsequent death penalty, including the case of Scottsboro Boys, the infamous Mississippi trial, and the Maxwell v. Bishop case (Steiker and Steiker 305, 306). As a crime, raping violates personal inviolability, which is considered a fundamental human right, like the right to life. Those who do not respect such rights and find themselves entitled to violating them do not deserve to have those rights, meaning that the corresponding criminal actions should be punished with the death penalty.
However, many people support the death penalty on several crucial conditions. The most important of them is the ability of the governments and courts to be fair when applying capital punishment and reliable in addressing crime (Kort-Butler and Ray 477). People who make decisions should be sure they do not sentence an innocent person to death. There also should be no racial, gender, religious, or other factors influencing the decisions of judges and juries. Prosecutors should decide whether the death penalty is applicable in a particular case strictly based on the law and the criminal activity of the defendant. An essential factor contributing to the public support of the death penalty is associated with “potential errors in the capital punishment process and the possibility of wrongful executions” (Kort-Butler and Ray 478). Thus, people should receive capital punishment only if their guilt is confirmed and the corresponding decision has been made based solely on the crime, not on the defendant’s individual characteristics.
Nonetheless, prosecutors should keep an open mind during the judicial process as the statistical biases may cause them to deliver a wrong verdict for a guilty person. For instance, there was an exemplifying case of Maxwell v. Bishop of 1968, which has already been mentioned previously. The case was associated with a black inmate raping a white victim (Steiker and Steiker 306). The defendant was sentenced to death, and the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) further challenged this decision (Steiker and Steiker 306). The LDF argued that the application of the death penalty was a consequence of racial injustice, and the verdict was unfair. The judge named Harry Blackmun expressed scepticism regarding that challenge, and it was rejected in the federal court. Blackmun said that broad theories of statistical injustice should not “condemn and upset the result reached in every case of a negro rape defendant” (qtd. in Steiker and Steiker 306). In other words, people who are actually guilty should be convicted of their crimes and receive the corresponding punishment regardless of individual factors, such as race.
Finally, one more crucial reason for the death penalty to be legal is related to the disadvantages of the most common alternative for capital punishment, namely life imprisonment. As it is known, prisons are supposed to either isolate convicts from society or re-educate them so they can change their life attitudes in order to prevent potential damage they could inflict. Kort-Butler and Ray suggest that modern prisons do not appear harsh enough, meaning that inmates’ chances for successful re-education are significantly reduced (488). Even a life sentence often implies the possibility of parole, meaning that even the most dangerous criminals may eventually regain their freedom. If inmates freed on parole have not changed their attitude to fundamental human rights, there is a possibility they will commit a criminal act again. In addition, prisons are usually maintained for citizens’ taxes, which creates a certain amount of inconsistency since, in many senses, law-abiding people have to feed murderers. The death penalty can help decrease the rates of repeated crime and reduce the amount of taxes paid for maintaining prisons.
Overall, the death penalty should have legal status and be implemented in cases related to cruel violation of fundamental human rights, as capital punishment effectively controls crime. People should be sentenced to death for such crimes as murder or rape since criminals who do not respect other people’s fundamental rights do not deserve them. The legal status of the death penalty can help reduce the crime rate as many people are less likely to commit a cruel act such as murder or rape if they risk losing their lives. The death penalty is also much more effective than its alternative, namely life imprisonment. However, capital punishment should not be associated with any form of injustice, and criminals should be convicted based on their actions, not on their individual characteristics such as race. The death penalty appears as one of the most efficient ways of fighting severe crimes, which is why it should be more common in the modern criminal justice system.
Kort-Butler, Lisa A., and Colleen M. Ray. “Public Support for the Death Penalty in a Red State: The Distrustful, the Angry, and the Unsure.” Punishment & Society, vol. 21, no. 4, 2019, pp. 473-495.
Rancourt, Marc‐Antoine, et al. “Is the Death Penalty Debate Really Dead? Contrasting Capital Punishment Support in Canada and the United States.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, vol. 20, no. 1, 2020, pp. 536-562.
Steiker, Carol S., and Jordan M. Steiker. “The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of the Death Penalty in the United States.” Annual Review of Criminology, vol. 3, 2020, pp. 299-315.