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*Updated 2022
Throughout history, societies around the world have used the death penalty as a way to punish the most heinous crimes.  While capital punishment is still practiced today, many countries have since abolished it.  In fact, in 2019, California’s governor put a moratorium on the death penalty, stopping it indefinitely. In early 2022, he took further steps and ordered the dismantling of the state’s death row. Given the moral complexities and depth of emotions involved, the death penalty remains a controversial debate the world over.
The following are three arguments in support of the death penalty and three against it.


Arguments supporting the death penalty


Prevents convicted killers from killing again

The death penalty guarantees that convicted murderers will never kill again.  There have been countless cases where convicts sentenced to life in prison have murdered other inmates and/or prison guards. Convicts have also been known to successfully arrange murders from within prison, the most famous case being mobster Whitey Bulger, who apparently was killed by fellow inmates while incarcerated. There are also cases where convicts who have been released for parole after serving only part of their sentences – even life sentences – have murdered again after returning to society. A death sentence is the only irrevocable penalty that protects innocent lives.


Maintains justice

For most people, life is sacred, and innocent lives should be valued over the lives of killers. Innocent victims who have been murdered – and in some cases, tortured beforehand – had no choice in their untimely and cruel death or any opportunity to say goodbye to friends and family, prepare wills, or enjoy their last moments of life. Meanwhile, convicted murderers sentenced to life in prison – and even those on death row – are still able to learn, read, write, paint, find religion, watch TV, listen to music, maintain relationships, and even appeal their sentences.

To many, capital punishment symbolizes justice and is the only way to adequately express society’s revulsion of the murder of innocent lives. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center Poll, the majority of US adults (60%) think that legal executions fit the crime of what convicted killers deserve. The death penalty is a way to restore society’s balance of justice – by showing that the most severe crimes are intolerable and will be punished in kind


Historically recognized

Historians and constitutional lawyers seem to agree that by the time the Founding Fathers wrote and signed the U.S. Constitution in 1787, and when the Bill of Rights were ratified and added in 1791, the death penalty was an acceptable and permissible form of punishment for premeditated murder. The Constitution’s 8th and 14th Amendments recognize the death penalty BUT under due process of the law. This means that certain legal requirements must first be fulfilled before any state executions can be legally carried out – even when pertaining to the cruelest, most cold-blooded murderer. While interpretations of the amendments pertaining to the death penalty have changed over the years, the Founding Fathers intended to allow for the death penalty from the very beginning and put in place a legal system to ensure due process.


Arguments against the Death Penalty


Not proven to deter crime

There’s no concrete evidence showing that the death penalty actually deters crime.  Various studies comparing crime and murder rates in U.S. states that have the death penalty versus those that don’t found that the murder rate in non-death-penalty states has actually remained consistently lower over the years than in those states that have the death penalty. These findings suggest that capital punishment may not actually be a deterrent for crime.

The winds may be shifting regarding the public’s opinion about the death penalty. This is evident by the recent decision of a non-unanimous Florida jury to sentence the Parkland High School shooter to life in prison without parole instead of the death penalty. While the verdict shocked many, it also revealed mixed feelings about the death penalty, including among the families of the 17 Parkland victims and families of victims from other mass shootings.


More expensive than imprisonment

Contrary to popular belief, the death penalty is actually more expensive than keeping an inmate in prison, even for life. While the cost of the actual execution may be minimal, the overall costs surrounding a capital case (where the death penalty is a potential punishment) are enormously high. Sources say that defending a death penalty case can cost around four times higher than defending a case not seeking death. Even in cases where a guilty plea cancels out the need for a trial, seeking the death penalty costs almost twice as much as cases that don’t. And this is before factoring in appeals, which are more time-consuming and therefore cost more than life-sentence appeals, as well as higher prison costs for death-row inmates.


Does not bring closure

It seems logical that punishing a murderer, especially a mass murderer, or terrorist with the most severe punishment would bring closure and relief to victims’ families. However, the opposite may be true. Studies show that capital punishment does not bring comfort to those affected by violent and fatal crimes.  In fact, punishing the perpetrator has been shown to make victims feel worse, as it forces them to think about the offender and the incident even more. Also, as capital cases can drag on for years due to endless court appeals, it can be difficult for victims’ families to heal, thus delaying closure.


The Bottom Line: The death penalty has been used to maintain the balance of justice throughout history, punishing violent criminals in the severest way to ensure they won’t kill again.  On the other hand, with inconclusive evidence as to its deterrence of crime, the higher costs involved in pursuing capital cases, and the lack of relief and closure it brings to victims’ families, the death penalty is not justified. Where do you stand on this controversial issue?


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