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The Pros and Cons of the Death Penalty

Paul graduated from university in 1987. He has done a variety of jobs, including librarian and researcher. He currently lives in Florida.

Electrocution is a modern method of execution. Other methods have included hanging, beheading, firing squad, poison, stoning to death, strangulation, lethal injection, and death by fire. Read on for the pros and cons of the death penalty.

Electrocution is a modern method of execution. Other methods have included hanging, beheading, firing squad, poison, stoning to death, strangulation, lethal injection, and death by fire. Read on for the pros and cons of the death penalty.

The Death Penalty Debate

Capital punishment is a difficult and emotional topic for many. Although it has been abolished in two-thirds of the world's countries, it has a long history and is still used in many places, including many states in the USA.

Its use continues to divide people. To those in favor, the death penalty is seen as the most suitable punishment and effective deterrent for the worst crimes. Those who oppose it, though, see it as inhumane and expensive. They point to data and comparisons of societies with and without capital punishment and argue that there is no evidence that it deters crime.

This article lists all the key pros and cons of executing people who have committed serious criminal offenses—first, the arguments in favor, followed by the arguments against.

I will admit, like Socrates and Aristotle and Plato and some other philosophers, that there are instances where the death penalty would seem appropriate.

— Jack Kevorkian

Death Penalty Pros

  • It deters criminals from committing serious crimes. Common sense tells us that the most frightening thing for a human being is to lose their life; therefore, the death penalty is the best deterrent when it comes to discouraging people from carrying out the worst crimes.
  • It is quick, painless, and humane. Methods of execution have gradually become more humane over the years, so the argument that the death penalty is cruel and unusual is not valid.
  • The legal system constantly evolves to maximize justice. That the legal system may make a wrong decision doesn’t mean that the death penalty is wrong. Every effort is made in the US to give death row prisoners opportunities to challenge the court's decisions. Modern methods of crime detection, such as DNA testing, also give greater certainty of guilt than existed in the past.
  • It appeases the victims or victims' families. The death penalty can provide families of victims with some closure, which may help them to deal with their suffering.
  • Without the death penalty, some criminals would continue to commit crimes. It deters prisoners who are already serving life sentences in jail from committing more serious offenses.
  • It is a cost-effective solution. The idea put forward by abolitionists that it costs more to execute someone than imprison them for life is simply not true, and there is plenty of evidence to show this.
  • Retribution is not the same as revenge. Retribution is a necessary part of the punishment process—without it, the friends and family of the victims, as well as the public in general, would not feel that justice had been served.

Death Penalty Cons

  • There is no credible proof that the death penalty works as a deterrent. In the US, in states where the death penalty has been abolished, there has been no significant change in the rates for serious criminal offenses, such as murder.
  • It is a cruel and unusual punishment, where basic standards of human dignity are compromised or undermined.
  • It continues the cycle of violence. Retribution is just another word for revenge—it is essentially just a form of the flawed thinking that two wrongs can make a right. The pro-death-penalty argument is that killing people is wrong, and therefore, you should kill people for killing, which makes no sense. . .
  • It affects the poorer segments of society and racial minorities disproportionately, in part because they cannot afford the costs of good legal support. In the USA, although only 13% of the population is African-American, 50% of death row prisoners are African-American.
  • It is an old-fashioned and ignorant solution. America’s image would be improved in places like Europe if the death penalty were abolished. The places where executions happen regularly include repressive regimes like Iran, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.
  • The justice system is bound to make mistakes. People who are wrongly imprisoned can be released from prison and given compensation, but a wrongful execution can never be righted.
  • The death penalty is not cost-effective. When all the practical and legal costs are taken into account, it is clear that execution is more expensive than imprisoning for life.
  • A life spent in prison is a worse punishment than an execution. A prisoner on a life sentence has many years to endure their punishment, as well as experience remorse and reflect on his or her crimes.
  • There are strong religious arguments against the death penalty. Life is sacred and God-given. Divine judgment comes in the afterlife.

The death penalty, I think, is a terrible scar on American justice, especially the concept of equal justice under law, but also of due process. And it goes state by state, and it's different in different states.

— Burke Marshall

Alcatraz Penitentiary was notoriously one of America's toughest prisons. Many who are anti-death-penalty think that instead of execution, criminals should face life imprisonment for the worst crimes.

Alcatraz Penitentiary was notoriously one of America's toughest prisons. Many who are anti-death-penalty think that instead of execution, criminals should face life imprisonment for the worst crimes.

Death Penalty Facts and Statistics

How many people have been killed by the death penalty?

There have been more than 1,400 since 1977. In the US, between 1967 and 1977, there were no executions. In 1972, as a result of Furman v. Georgia, the US Supreme Court reduced all pending death sentences to life imprisonment. Later, in 1976, the court affirmed the legality of capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia.

How many states have the death penalty?

28.

Which states allow the death penalty?

Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North, Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming.

Which states don't have the death penalty?

Alaska (1957)*, Connecticut (2012), Delaware (2016), Hawaii (1957), Illinois (2011), Iowa (1965), Maine (1887), Maryland (2013), Massachusetts (1984), Michigan (1846), Minnesota (1911), New Hampshire (2019), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009), New York (2007), North Dakota (1973), Rhode Island (1984), Vermont (1964), West Virginia (1965), Wisconsin (1853), Washington (2018) and Washington, D.C. (1981).

*The parenthetical date is when capital punishment ended in that state.

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Three states also have gubernatorial moratoria on the death penalty: California (2019), Oregon (2011), and Pennsylvania (2015).

For the most up-to-date information, visit the Death Penalty Information Center's state-by-state statistics.

How many of those executed via the death penalty were later found to be innocent?

According to some accounts, the number might be as high as 4.1%. According to a study cited in Newsweek magazine, one in 25 sentenced to death is innocent.

How much does it cost to execute someone?

The average cost of a death penalty case is $2.4 million. To learn more about the relative costs, visit the Death Penalty Information Center.

How is the death penalty administered?

It varies state by state, but the methods (listed from most to least common) are lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber, hanging, and firing squad.

Read The Guardian for more statistics on the death penalty. You might also find Statistic Brain's data useful.

My objection to the death penalty is based on the idea that this is a democracy, and in a democracy the government is me, and if the government kills somebody then I'm killing somebody.

— Steve Earle

Did You Know?

  • Japan is the only advanced democratic country, besides the United States, that has the death penalty.
  • The five countries that carry out the most executions in the world are China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the USA.
  • Since 1976, there have been 273 clemencies granted in the US.
Aileen Wuornos was a female serial killer who killed seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990.  She claimed self-defense at her trial, but was found guilty of six murders and executed by the State of Florida by lethal injection on October 9, 2002.

Aileen Wuornos was a female serial killer who killed seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990. She claimed self-defense at her trial, but was found guilty of six murders and executed by the State of Florida by lethal injection on October 9, 2002.

Our criminal justice system is fallible. We know it, even though we don't like to admit it. It is fallible despite the best efforts of most within it to do justice. And this fallibility is, at the end of the day, the most compelling, persuasive, and winning argument against a death penalty.

— Eliot Spitzer

Death Penalty Poll

Which Crimes "Deserve" the Death Penalty?

The US government lists 41 capital offenses (different from those listed by separate states) that are punishable by death. They include:

  • genocide,
  • war crimes,
  • treason,
  • espionage,
  • terrorism,
  • extensive drug trafficking,
  • murder-for-hire,
  • murder involving torture,
  • and attempting to kill a witness, juror, court officer, or state or local law enforcement official.

You know, the Bible is so clear. Go to Genesis chapter nine and you will find the death penalty clearly stated in Genesis chapter nine... God ordains the death penalty!

— Rafael Cruz

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Why does the death penalty cost so much?

Answer: Mainly due to the legal costs being greater. Because there is a life at stake, there are many lawyers, judges, and other people working for a long time to prepare, try and review all of the issues. Prisoners on death row also cost more to house than general prisoners.

Question: Does the death penalty have anything to do with the religious concept that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell?

Answer: Religious opinion is divided on the death penalty. Some Christian groups, such as Catholics, see life as precious and that only God can judge whether a life should be taken away, with God's judgment generally coming in the afterlife. Advocates of the death penalty typically see it as a natural punishment that enforces Christian morality, which also has biblical justification.

Question: Why is the death penalty legal?

Answer: It's legal in many US states and countries around the world, because it is often perceived by a large proportion of politicians and members of the public to be an effective deterrent and punishment for the worst types of crime. Proponents argue that the death penalty has moral, practical, cultural, historical, and sometimes religious justification.

Question: Why do people agree with the death penalty?

Answer: People in favor of the death penalty believe that it is a fitting punishment for the most heinous crimes, such as murder, and also that it acts as a deterrent. Other arguments include that execution can bring a sense of closure for the victims and their families.

Question: Could the death penalty substitute life imprisonment? Is there a reason the country doesn't do that?

Answer: Arguments used by critics of the death penalty, who prefer life imprisonment, include: 1. Miscarriages of justice cannot be addressed if a person is wrongly executed 2. Religious arguments include the concept that life is a gift from God and only God has the right to take it away, as well as the New Testament assertion that an "eye for an eye" approach is wrong. 3. In the US, some legal scholars argue that the death penalty goes against the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishments. 4. The death penalty can end up costing more than life imprisonment. 5. It promotes the "two wrongs make a right approach," using violence.

Question: Do prisoners like having a life sentence?

Answer: No one wishes to be locked up for life. Most prisoners prefer a life sentence to the death penalty, though, firstly, because people generally don't want to die, and secondly, it leaves open a possibility, however tiny, of release. Not all convicts prefer lifelong incarceration; some prefer the idea of execution, a famous example being the female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos.

Question: Do criminals always get the death penalty?

Answer: The death penalty is usually only used for the most serious crimes. In the USA this often means first degree murder along with a number of aggravating factors, such as rape, airplane hijacking, or the killing of a police officer.

Question: Why does the death penalty exist?

Answer: The three main purposes of the death penalty are: 1. To prevent the worst criminals from ever committing any further crimes. 2. To deter people from committing serious crimes. 3. Achieve justice for the family and friends of the victims of serious crimes.

© 2011 Paul Goodman

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