The death penalty is a historical type of punishment for capital crimes across the world. Its use is one of the most controversial topics internationally. For instance, in the United States, the support for the death penalty varies across the states. Nationally, the backing for capital punishment appears to decrease, and more people call for the abolishment of the practice. Opponents argue that it is a barbaric, unethical, and cruel form of punishment that discriminates based on race. However, its proponents claim that the death penalty is more effective than life imprisonment, especially as a deterrent, retributive, and rehabilitative practice. Although the death penalty is considered effective in the punishment of capital crimes, its use remains a debated problem amid arguments for and against its application. Notably, the fight for its abolishment is more convincing than its continued use.
Arguments Against the Death Penalty
The death penalty is a human rights issue in the United States and internationally. Opponents argue that it is a cruel form of punishment and should not justify a consequence that fails to respect the value of life. Calls for its abolishment suggest that such torture is unacceptable, especially if used by the state against its people. The argument is that capital punishment does not square with major punishment theories (Flanders 598). Therefore, various international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) are against the death penalty. Amnesty International is one of the movements that have fought against the continued use of cruel punishment. The organization maintains that the death penalty is a “premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state” (Mathias 1247). Regardless of the crime, the criminal justice system is not warranted to initiate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment. Hence, the state should abolish the death penalty and use other just means of punishing criminals.
Another argument against the death penalty is the moral or ethical statement used by international organizations and in religious circles. Those groups use moral order to oppose capital punishment and support its abolishment (Mathias 1247). They consider the fundamental ethical and legitimate treatment of human beings and maintain that the state is responsible for protecting all its citizens regardless of their criminal behavior. Sacralization is among the concepts that proponents use to advance the argument against execution. It suggests that human beings are an essential part of the world society and should be defended by the government (Mathias 1248). Furthermore, spiritual leaders and other moral advocates argue that life is sacred and the justice system should not terminate it based on any crime. Those claims establish religious grounds to abolish the death penalty and protect human life (Mathias 1251). Legislative and non-legislative abolitionists demand the state and the international community end the use of capital punishment. Thus, terminating the practice will be a commitment by the government to protect human rights.
The third claim maintains that the death penalty targets racial minorities and is a form of discrimination in the criminal justice system. Opponents of this kind of punishment reflect on the racial history of capital punishment in the United States. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) is one of the racial-justice organizations that oppose the practice since it unjustly targets minorities in the country (Steiker and Steiker 244). The history of capital punishment in the United States, from the 18th century, reveals that higher numbers of blacks than whites have been executed. Additionally, while whites were only sentenced to death for murder, blacks faced the same punishment for other crimes. The latter also encountered the cruelest forms of death (Steiker and Steiker 246). Although the number of executions declined in the 20th century, the death penalty remained an essential form of racial subjugation (Steiker and Steiker 254). Modern opposition to capital punishment maintains the possible discriminatory application targeting ethnic minority groups.
Arguments for the Death Penalty
Various criminal theories justify the death penalty. Retributive justice is a theoretical framework supporting capital punishment (Flanders 597). Criminologists use this model to portray that the best response to a criminal offense should be proportional to the crime. Traditionally, proponents have justified death punishment on retributivist grounds. Immanuel Kant provides the basis for understanding the importance of the execution of murderers by arguing that “he who kills must die,” a life for a life (Flanders 606). Thus, any person who commits a capital crime should face a similar fate. Any other penalty would be an injustice because it would not fit the crime. The argument also supports the idea of getting justice for the victim. Therefore, executing a murderer is the only way for the victim to access justice.
Proponents of the death penalty cite its deterrence effect. Many Americans claim capital punishment is more effective than life imprisonment in preventing repeat offenses. A survey of California Bay Area residents conducted in 1974 revealed that 93 percent of supporters acknowledged: “the death penalty is a more effective deterrent than life imprisonment” (Ellsworth and Gross 27). Their position indicates that this form of punishment is effective in discouraging people from committing a crime. Executing criminals for a specific type of crime might deter the commission of future offenses (Flanders 597). It would also save the country considerable resources in fighting crime. The possibility of stopping future murders by executing one person makes the application of the death penalty more relevant in the criminal justice system (Flanders 597). Thus, such a punishment discourages other potential criminals from committing offenses due to fear of execution.
Advocates of the death penalty use moral reasoning to support it. The sentence can play a significant role in the moral rehabilitation of an offender, at least during the time before the execution (Flanders 597). Death row criminals spend several years in prison before they are executed. During such a period, they have enough time to repent for their crimes and accept their imminent death. Religious leaders may visit them in their cells and encourage them to ask for forgiveness. The argument supports the rehabilitative role of the criminal justice system. In addition, the proponents of the death penalty maintain that such punishment can rehabilitate crime (Flanders 612). Although a criminal faces the possibility of death, he or she has an opportunity to deliberate on the offense and even speak to the victim and request forgiveness.
Life is sacred and should be protected by the state. Although the arguments in support of the death penalty appear convincing, the form of punishment remains cruel and goes against the need to protect human rights. Therefore, international organizations adopted treaties and laws to protect people against cruel and unusual punishment. The state should protect its people and abolish capital punishment according to such regulations. Besides, killing for whatever reason has moral or ethical implications. From a religious perspective, no one is allowed to take another person’s life since it is sacred. Within the American context, the criminal justice system has unjustly targeted racial minorities in its use of capital punishment. Hence, retributive, deterrence, and rehabilitative arguments should not be used as the basis to justify the use of cruel and barbaric punishment.
As it is evident from the discussion, the death penalty is a historical form of punishment used by criminal justice systems to punish individuals found guilty of committing a capital offense. It is one of the most controversial topics in the United States and other parts of the world. The two sides of the debate involve convincing arguments for and against its application within the criminal justice system. Opponents argue that it is a cruel punishment that goes against human rights and the sanctity of life. It is also discriminating and targets racial minority groups. However, proponents claim that the death penalty is justifiable because of its retributive, deterrence, and rehabilitative effects. Although proponents might have a strong case to support the punishment, it remains a cruel form of deterrence and should be abolished. The state should apply other ethical types of punishment, such as life imprisonment, for capital offenses.
Ellsworth, Phoebe C., and Samuel Gross R. “Hardening of the Attitudes: Americans’ Views on the Death Penalty.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 50, no. 2, 1994, pp. 19-52.
Flanders, Chad. “The Case Against the Case Against the Death Penalty.” New Criminal Law Review: In International and Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 16, no. 4, 2013, pp. 595-620.
Mathias, Matthew D. “The Sacralization of the Individual: Human Rights and the Abolition of the Death Penalty.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 118, no. 5, 2013, pp. 1246-1283.
Steiker, Carol S., and Jordan Steiker M. “The American Death Penalty and the (In) Visibility of Race.” The University of Chicago Law Review, vol. 82, no. 1, 2015, pp. 243-294.