Radelet & Borg address the most common arguments for and against the death penalty, and how views on capital punishment have changed over time in respect to six specific areas: deterrence, incapacitation, caprice and bias, cost, innocence, and retribution.
No theories are presented; instead, the authors elect to analyze secondary data from previous studies, surveys, experiments, and other social science literature. Although some of the research cited was conducted by one (or both) authors previously, most of the data comes from Gallup Polls, federal statistics, and literature or experiments published by other criminologists in journals or books.
According to Radelet & Borg (2000), deterrence was, in the past, the most frequently-cited reason for arguments in support of the death penalty. The claim stems from a belief that potential criminals will be less likely to commit severe acts of violence if they know that those who carried out similar crimes before them were put to death – in much the same way that heads on pikes at the gates of a city were intended to deter criminal activity in the Middle Ages. Recently, however, many studies have concluded that the death penalty offers no significant deterrent effects, and the few which claim to find support for these effects have received substantial criticism (Radelet & Borg, 2000). The majority of both criminologists and law enforcement officers surveyed expressed that they do not believe the death penalty offers any difference in the amount of violent crimes committed (Radelet & Borg, 2000).
Incapacitation is another oft-cited justification for use of the death penalty, since no murderer has ever been executed and subsequently gone on to kill again. Radelet & Borg (2000) state that, despite the fact that incapacitation is now the second favorite argument in support of the death penalty, the odds of repeat murders are extremely low. In fact, one study found that about one percent of death row inmates committed another murder once released, and roughly one percent of death row inmates have also been found innocent (Radelet & Borg, 2000). Modern innovations in imprisonment allow a sentence of life without parole to rather thoroughly reduce the risk of repeat offenses.
The death penalty still fails to be applied in such a way as to avoid racial bias. For comparable crimes, a jury is about three to four times more likely to give a death penalty vote when the victim is white (Radelet & Borg, 2000). According to a survey cited by Radelet & Borg (2000), American citizens appear to support the death penalty despite acknowledging that...