Is a death penalty too expensive to survive in America?

It looks like the principle of retribution is still part of the society in United States and it helps politicians to be elected.

Questions:

1. An Eye for an eye. It was normal in the history of the mankind. Why people started to think the capital punishment is something unacceptable in your opinion?

2.  America is one of the few democratic countries with a capital punishment.  Why is it still so? Do you think it will change in the foreseeable future or because it’s also up to separate states it’s hard to imagine for example Texas without the  capital punishment?

Answers:

Keith Price, Retired Prison Warden, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Sociology, West Texas A&M University

1. Retribution (an eye for an eye) is the most powerful argument that can be made for capital punishment. If society applied a reasonable level of social harm (mass murder, serial murder, treason), there would be few critics of the death penalty. However, capital punishment in the U.S. is a political tool that ensures re-election for politicians who are “tough on crime.” The major problem with capital punishment in the U.S. today is equal protection (our Constitution requires equal protection for all citizens). Two identical acts may bring very different sanctions. An armed robber in a rural community kills the clerk and receives a life sentence. An armed robber in an urban area commits the same act and receives a death sentence. There are similar correlations based on race, socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity, national origin, religion, and region of the U.S.

2. Even though the United States was birthed from a western European culture, life in the U.S. is distinctly different from or cultural mother (England). The “frontier” ceased to exist for England hundreds of years ago. However, in the U.S., the frontier ceased to exist only a few generations ago. The frontier spirit and all its trappings, still dominate our culture. This explains our love of guns, chivalry, revenge, swift and painful justice, and capital punishment. This is especially true in Texas. The spirit of the frontier is still a part of life even though most of Texas’ population lives in large cities. We still view ourselves as the cowboys of our past. The representative democracy in the U.S. is very different from the parliamentary systems of Europe. The parliamentary system can force change in spite of popular support for a particular system of justice. This cannot happen in the U.S. were political leaders must constantly work for re-election. The U.S. Supreme Court has some isolation from popular opinion. Most of the changes in the death penalty have come from this institution. However, even the Supreme Court is not totally isolated from the popular will of the people. Americans are not ready to give up the death penalty. When our country is as old as England, France, Spain, or Italy, perhaps we will have outgrown our need for state vengeance. That time will not come anytime in the near future in my opinion.

The major force of change will ultimately be economic. The death penalty in the U.S. is extremely expensive due to “super due process.” Jurisdictions will eventually understand (including Texas) that the death penalty is a “coin” that must be carefully spent.

Matthew Robinson, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Appalachian State University

1. As people see capital punishment as a human rights issue rather than a criminal justice or victim-service issue, they are less likely to support it.  Since the right to life is the most fundamental human right, when people see capital punishment as a human rights issue they question and ultimately reject the government’s right to take a human life.

As for retribution (an eye for an eye), this is typically seen as an “Old Testament” thing in the United States.  The New Testament is less supportive of this idea and instead posits ideas such as forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and loving your enemies (which obviously does not include killing them).  The rejection of capital punishment on these (religious) grounds can be seen as an indicator of a society evolving and becoming more decent.

2. Yes, the United States is in fact the only western industrialized nation with capital punishment and one of only two modern democratic countries that practices it (along with Japan).  But, in fact, most states do not really practice it.  For example, there are 36 states with the death penalty and 14 without.  Yet, of the 36 death penalty states, only 9 states (25%) have executed at least one person every year in the past 30 years.  And only one state has executed at least four people every year in the past 30 years (Texas, which has executed only 12 people per year on average).

Nationally, only 1.2% of all killings in death penalty states lead to death sentences, and even in death penalty states, the figure is only 2.2%.  Further, only 0.185% of killers have been executed in the past 30 years.  Even Texas, which leads the nation in capital punishment, only executes about 0.6% of its killers!

Thus, the death penalty is actually quite rare here.  It is mostly a “southern” thing, occurring in states that have long histories of racial unrest and violence.  Yet, we seem to be slowly evolving away from it, just more slowly in the south.  The number of death sentences and executions have fallen dramatically in the past ten years.

As for why the penalty persists here, I think there are three reasons.  The first is federalism — our government is set up so that each state has the right to pursue its own policies.  This makes it harder to just abolish capital punishment once and for all.  The second is politics — politicians here use capital punishment to achieve the ideological purpose of appearing “tough on crime” to get elected and stay in power.  The third is tradition.  Capital punishment is something we have always had, and Americans are hesitant (afraid even) to give it up.  Yet, as states slowly move away from it, a new tradition is emerging, and it is an anti-death penalty tradition.  I envision an America in the next 20 years where only a handful of states (perhaps two or three states) practice capital punishment.

Max Latona, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, Saint Anselm College

1. The principle known as “An eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” was for a long time known as a progressive principle, when set against unbearably harsh forms of punishment as were found, for example, under the ancient Greek ruler Draco.  For Draco, nearly every infraction–even the most minor ones– was punishable with death (and that is why we refer to some laws as “Draconian”).  When viewed as a principle of proportionality in punishment, “An eye for an eye” (also known as lex talionis) should not be taken literally.  It simply means that minor offenses deserve less severe punishment, and major offenses deserve more severe punishment–and in this sense it is a sound principle.

Modern society has begun to frown upon the principle of lex talionis as a bloodthirsty principle, and at the same time, society has turned away from capital punishment as a form of punishment for the worst kinds of crimes.  I suspect there are many forces at work here, including a perception of human dignity and associated human rights, but one reason for these trends might be the following.  Punishment theorists have moved away from seeing punishment as primarily a form of just retribution, i.e., as something simply deserved by the offender for his crime.  Rather, influenced by utilitarian schools of thought, many thinkers now see punishment as intended to produce social or individual goods.  Thus, like J.S. Mill, many people think the primary purpose of punishment is to deter others from crime. Others think it is to rehabilitate the criminal (i.e., teach him a lesson, and help them become a functioning member of society), and still others think that it simply to incapacitate the criminal (i.e., prevent him from doing the crime again).

When viewed from the perspectives of deterrence, rehabilitation, or incapacitation,  capital punishment no longer appears justified.  Statistical evidence is inconclusive as to whether the death penalty really deters others from the same or similar crimes.  It certainly doesn’t seem to allow for rehabilitation.  And there are other ways to effectively prevent the offender from committing the same crime in the future (e.g., imprisonment).

2. I suspect that capital punishment has survived for so long in the United States (in contrast to Europe) in part because the average American, for good or bad, still sees punishment as simply getting what one deserves. Thus, for serious crimes such as first-degree murder, the death penalty is viewed as giving the murderer his due. There may be historical factors at work as well: after all, it was not all that long ago (Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1936, when Rainey Bethea was hanged) that the United States held its last public execution.   Even today, executions are still viewed by family members of the victim, and are sometimes shown on closed circuit television (e.g. the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, on Monday, June 11, 2001).

I also suspect (but can’t confirm this), that the tide is changing.  I think that more and more Americans are beginning to see capital punishment as unacceptable–whether because of European sensibilities, changing views of nature and purpose of punishment, perceptions of human rights, the influence of the Catholic Church (the Pope has condemned capital punishment as a violation of the dignity of the person), or otherwise.  Perhaps it is significant that in 2007, only 42 inmates were executed, 11 fewer than the previous year, 2006.  On the other hand, 42 executions is quite a few!

It remains unclear what will happen at the level of Federal and State law.  One possible scenario is that the Supreme Court will, someday, simply rule that it constitutes a form of “cruel and unusual punishment” and a violation of the American Constitution.  More likely, I think, is that it will continue to remain a matter for states to decide, and in that scenario, there will probably be capital punishment for some time in states like Texas (which was responsible for 26 of the 42 executions in 2007).

Michael Radelet, Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado at Boulder

1.  We now have alternatives to the death penalty that our ancestors did not: long or life imprisonment.  With that option, all the goals that people once thought could only be accomplished by the death penalty can now be achieved with non-lethal methods.

2.  America still has the death penalty because we have politicians who mislead us about its benefits.  The more people know about the death penalty, the more likely they are to oppose it.

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