Should the government abolish capital punishment? This is a question that has plagued the United States since its birth, as it is a complex social issue not easily resolved. The law, society, and many religious institutions consider life to be precious. Also, because capital punishment is irreversible, an innocent life could potentially be at stake in the pursuit of justice. Groups that are opposed to the death penalty – such as Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the majority of Christian religious institutions (Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodist, Presbyterians, and the United Church of Christ)– feel that it is an unnecessary violation of human rights. (“History of the Death Penalty”) On the other hand, supporters for the death penalty – such as the Republican Party and the Fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and Mormon churches – argue that it is a just punishment for heinous crimes and an effective deterrent for potential criminals. (“History”) These groups have raised additional questions: Does the government have the right to execute its own citizens as punishment? Should the Death Penalty be replaced with life imprisonment without parole? And why is the United States the only industrialized, Democratic nation that still uses capital punishment? To begin, we can look for answers in the history of capital punishment in the U.S.
Scholars estimate that since colonial times, at least 15,000 people have been executed in the United States. (“Paternoster 14”) Since 1930, however, there has been a gradual decline in the number of executions performed per year (14). Between 1967 and 1977, there was a temporary abolishment of capital punishment; but since it was reinstituted, the rate of executions has been on the rise (14). What does this tell us about the current state of capital punishment? While the history of the issue is important, there are many underlying factors that increase its complexity.
THE DEATH PENALTY AS A DETERRENT
Do harsh legal penalties such as death really work in deterring crime? Most studies show no conclusive evidence that capital punishment does (or does not) have this effect. (“Facts and Figures”). In fact, over 80% of criminologists agree that capital punishment is not a proven deterrent. (Radelet)
The “deterrent hypothesis” is that murder rates would be higher in states without the death penalty than in states that use the death penalty. However, when murder rates were compared both before and after abolition of the death penalty in states, no substantial increase in homicides occurred. (Peterson) According to Amnesty International, “A New York Times survey, released in September 2000, found that during the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty has been 48% to 101% higher than in states without the death penalty.” (“Death Penalty Facts”)
Surprisingly, there is...