Too many Americans support the death penalty—60 percent, to be exact, according to Gallup last October. Many believe in the merits of the death penalty, wondering why anyone would waste time and energy in defense of criminals on death row who represent the worst of the worst in America. This pro-death penalty stance is ill-founded and if given more information, many supporters of the death penalty would likely change their mind. Here are five major points that encapsulate why the death penalty is such a misguided policy:
1: It is more expensive to kill someone than it is to imprison them for life.
The costs of the death penalty render it simply ludicrous from the perspective of fiscal policy. While the actual killing operation costs little, the execution of a prisoner can, according to Forbes, cost ten times more than it would to keep him or her alive. The costs associated with the processes needed to ultimately execute the prisoner are tremendous. According to Fox News (not exactly the most liberal source), a death penalty trial costs the government $1 million more than a trial for life without parole.
The insane costs do not end there. Prisoners on death row can appeal their convictions multiple times, wasting more and more taxpayer dollars that could be put to better use elsewhere. Instead of spending all this money on attempting to legally execute someone, why not spend the money on better policies to prevent the crimes that death-row inmates are accused of from happening in the first place, such as improving community policing, building infrastructure to reduce crime, or even just lowering the tax burden? According to Forbes, California has spent over $1 billion on the death penalty since the state instituted it in 1978. In that time, California has executed only thirteen prisoners. That means that California spends roughly $77 million to execute a prisoner, a ridiculous sum when California’s public education system only spends about $9,370 per student per year. It is absurd that a state spends over eight thousand times more in the pursuit of killing someone than they do in educating a child for a year.
2: We often execute innocent people.
It seems criminal that a country that prides itself on righteousness permits the atrocity of killing innocent prisoners. According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, innocent men and women account for 4.1 percent of all executions. This number is unacceptably high. Benjamin Franklin once said: “That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved.” Seeing as we likely execute one innocent individual in every twenty-five, it is safe to say that Franklin would be ashamed.
There are countless heart-wrenching examples of executions of the innocent. A case in point is the wrongful execution of Carlos DeLuna, an innocent man whose life was ended by the state of Texas when he was only twenty-seven years old. DeLuna had been accused of killing a gas station attendant in Corpus Christi, a southern community off the Gulf Coast. DeLuna claimed he was innocent, but the jury believed otherwise—he was sentenced to death and executed in 1989. Further research done in 2012, though, confirmed that DeLuna had killed no one. Rather, the attendant was killed by career criminal, Carlos Hernandez.
If DeLuna had been sentenced to life in prison he would be alive now. Yes, his wrongful imprisonment would have stolen his youth, but at least he would still be able to carry out the rest of his life as a free man. Instead, DeLuna’s life was unjustly stripped from him, one of the many scars our country must bear for its wrongful killings.
3: Execution is government overreach.
Our country is famously based on “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If our country was founded on such values, why is it that states are allowed to take one of these core rights—life—away from us?
Some may claim that by this logic, prisons should not exist because prisons strip individuals of their liberty. Prisons are a separate matter, however. Prisons makes sense because they serve as a form of institutional protection of the liberty, lives, and pursuit of happiness of civilians from dangerous criminals. The prisoner is in prison because he has shown himself to be a danger to society. Execution, though, serves no purpose. The prisoner is behind bars, he can hurt no one, and the government has done its job and has protected the people. To then execute said prisoner, who is safely behind bars, is an action that can sufficiently be described as government overreach. The government here is taking away the individual prisoner’s right to life for no reason. Simply put, the government’s role is to protect individuals. Execution protects no one; it violates Americans’ basic right to life for no benefit at all.
4: As a country that practices execution, we are not in good company.
There are fifty-eight countries in the world that practice the death penalty. Of those fifty-eight, only four are industrialized nations: the United States, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan. Singapore is arguably not a “free” country: it censors freedom of speech and has been criticized for its human rights abuses. So there are, for all intents and purposes, three free countries that execute criminals. The United States is the only one whose form of government is rooted in the Western tradition of inalienable rights.
All of Europe except Belarus prohibits the death penalty. Many African countries that are less free than America do not practice the death penalty. Every country in the Americas except Guyana, Guatemala, and the United States does not practice the death penalty. The list of countries which have abolished the death penalty will continue to grow, since other countries are beginning to come to their senses and doing away with the death penalty. Guinea and Nauru abolished the death penalty last year. To lag behind such nations is truly shameful.
Which countries do impose capital punishment? Besides the United States, the other countries that execute the most people are Egypt, Somalia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, and China. To be in such company is an outrage. How can we, as a country, claim moral superiority to these despotic nations when, in practice, we treat our citizens similarly? To share anything in common with these regimes, which are widely known to abuse the rights of their citizens, is shameful. The United States was one of the last countries to join the modern world and abolish the shameful act of slavery. Unfortunately, it seems we are likely also to be one of the last countries to abolish the shameful act of execution.
5: Life in prison is a worse punishment than execution.
Supporters of the death penalty will often point to capital punishment as a method of carrying out the worst possible form of punishment on the worst breed of criminals. Realistically, though, the death penalty is quick and, if administered correctly, relatively painless. (That being said, botched executions can sometimes be incredibly painful and comparable to or exceed the pain felt by torture. But this is only another reason why the death penalty is a barbarous act that should be stopped.)
Life in prison without parole, on the other hand, is not quick. Prisoners must come to grips with the reality that they will spend the rest of their lives in prison. Unlike prisoners who committed minor crimes, this is not a temporary struggle they have to endure before they can continue with their life. Prison is their life now. It is no wonder then that more and more death row inmates actually prefer the death penalty to life in prison. And while many prisoners do not want to be executed, it could be that this is simply a gut reaction from people faced with the immediacy of death. The truth is, however, that the unrewarding aspect and menial life of prison is essentially a form of execution of the prisoner’s previous life, a life which he will soon realize is gone for good. Even if the death penalty is worse than life in prison, is it worse enough to justify the absurd costs that it brings?
When a young child hits his sibling, we teach the victimized child to use words and not hit back. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” we tell that child. Yet, for some reason, such lessons are forgotten to us when we advocate capital punishment for criminals.
Defendants of capital punishment often invoke emotional arguments. Why is it fair that a criminal who killed someone should be allowed to live? The unfortunate answer is that it’s not fair. Through that criminal’s actions, a great injustice has been thrust onto the world. But, the solution to an injustice is not to commit another injustice in retaliation. Carrying out the death penalty is a brash response to an unfortunate tragedy. What makes a country free and great, though, is its ability to think things through before taking action rather than operating on emotions alone. Rather than taking revenge against criminals, we should rationally choose smart, effective policies that save us money, maintain our values, and promote our international standing in the world.
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