The United States has one of the highest rates of violent crimes in the world regardless of the fact it uses one of the harshest penal systems (Atwell 100). Because of these worrying statistics, the United States criminal justice system has been under constant criticism concerning the state’s effectiveness in curbing crime, which is one of its main objectives. The topic of contention is closely related to the form of justice used and determines the method that is most effective in controlling crime between restorative, retributive, and punitive forms of punishment. In this contentious debate, the issue of using the death penalty in administering punishment to heinous crimes is rather controversial. Whether criminal justice system of the United States should make use of a more lenient restorative form of justice by abolishing the death penalty, or adopt a retributive stance and use the death penalty to punish capital offenses has been a provocative question for many years. In the contemporary era of the death penalty in the United States criminal justice system, the Supreme Court, during 1972 (when ruling in Furman v. Georgia 408 U.S 238), stated that, according to the laws of the time, imposing and executing the death penalty constitutes an unusual and cruel form of punishment that violates the 8th and 14th Amendments. The Supreme Court emphasized its objections to the use of the death penalty with respect to the style of applying the death penalty laws and concluded that the death penalty was “arbitrary, freakish, and harsh” to be accepted under the United States Constitution. Four years after this court ruling, several hundred individuals have been subjected to the death penalty in accordance to the new state capital punishment statutes written to guide the juries in administering the sentences.
In 1976, the US Supreme Court made a ruling that was a move towards embracing the use of the death penalty. In Gregg v. Georgia, 428 US 153, the Supreme Court stated that the new death penalty statutes spelled out the objective standards to be used in guiding, regularizing, and making the process of the death sentence imposition reasonable and rationally reviewed. As a result, the federal government and 38 states adopted the death penalty legislation following the Supreme Court’s decision in Gregg v. Georgia. In 2002, the Supreme Court concerned the executions of mentally incapacitated criminals as being unusual and cruel punishment, which is prohibited under the 8th Amendment. This decision resulted in state’s developing numerous processes to ensure that mentally ill individuals are not sentenced to death. In addition, in 2005, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the 8th and 14th Amendments prohibited imposing the death penalty on minor offenders (below 18 years). As of 2012, at least 3200 adults were waiting for a death sentence, whereas 1300 adults and children had been sentenced to death since 1976. It is evident that, in the modern era, the United States criminal justice system has been constantly shifting its stance on the issue of applying the death penalty. Similarly, the death penalty issue draws divergent views in criminal justice scholars, researchers, and experts. This paper argues that the death penalty should be abolished in the United States criminal justice system. The paper founds the reasoning against the death penalty on constitutional, practical, and moral grounds. As a result, the death penalty should never be justified under any circumstance. To this end, the death penalty should be abolished; instead, other forms of punishment such as life sentencing should be applied to capital offenders.
Death Penalty is Barbaric and Cruel
The death penalty is usually considered a barbaric and cruel form of punishment because it takes its roots from the initial days of penology, when branding, slavery, and other types of corporal punishment were a matter of course. Just like the aforementioned barbaric practices, death sentences have no place in the modern civilized society. In the United States, death sentence is executed using any of the five methods, which include hanging, firing squad, electrocution, gas chamber, and lethal injection. There are only few jurisdictions that permit the offender select his/her preferred method of execution. Hanging is a traditional method of execution, and it is still an option in Washington, New Hampshire, and Delaware. Hanging is barbaric: if the drop is extremely short, the death will be agonizing and slow; however, if the drop is extremely long, the head is likely to be torn off. The firing squad is used in two states namely Utah and Idaho, whereby the offender is strapped in a chair, hooded, and that a target is placed on his/her chest, and five marksmen fire the prisoner. In the course of the 20th century, electrocution has been the most prevalent method of executing the prisoners. Electrocution is currently used in 11 states despite the fact that lethal injection is still considered the prime method of execution. In order to improve electrocution, the gas chamber execution was introduced, whereby the offender was tied onto a chair and placed in a container with sulfuric acid. Lethal injection is the last method of executing offenders and is used in at least 30 states. It is relatively easy to overstate the efficiency and humaneness associated with this method; however, it is difficult to ascertain whether death by lethal injection is a painless process or not, since there is no evidence indicating that it is or it is not. There is uncontroverted and significant evidence indicating that lethal injection executions pose a significant risk of protracted and cruel death. For instance, a slight dosage or administration error can leave the offender alert but paralyzed during the dying process, making him/her a sentient witness of death. Lethal injection execution has gained public acceptance because of its subtle analogy to life saving medical practice. In addition, it allows the state to execute prisoners without anyone involved in the process and prisoner feeling anything. Regardless of the fact that lethal injection executions were a move to lessen the barbaric nature of the death penalty, any form of execution could never be human. The problem is not the method of execution; rather, the death penalty itself is considered barbaric. Concerning the botched lethal injections, there are several instances where lethal injections did progress according to plan. For instance, the execution of Rommel Broom in Ohio was characterized by 18 attempts to locate a vein for the lethal dose with the process lasting for at least two hours. This forced the governor to discontinue the execution and grant him a one-week reprieve. Broom is yet to be executed because he is challenging the right of the state to perform the second execution after the failed first attempt. The protocol-based issues in lethal injection relate to the three-drug lethal injection procedure that violates the ban on unusual and cruel forms of punishment. Regarding the death row syndrome, it is apparent that the court appeals are time consuming and costly. The average waiting time between sentencing and execution is about 12 years; meanwhile, the offender is placed in solitary confinement resulting in a phenomenon referred to as the death row syndrome. This is one of the destructive consequences associated with solitary confinement for long periods.
No Other Major Democracy Makes Use of the Death Penalty
The use of the death penalty in the United States as something that is unusual owing to the fact that, out of all the western industrialized countries, only the US makes use of the death penalty. A global perspective on the issue can help in understanding the peculiarity associated with the death penalty in the United States. Globally, the death penalty is considered anachronistic and inhumane. For instance, in 1962, the Council of Report stated, “the death penalty in Europe is something likened to anachronism.” Presently, all countries in the Western Europe have abolished the use of the death penalty, either in practice or by law. For example, the United Kingdom abolished the use of the death penalty in 1971 with the exception for treason cases; France abolished the death penalty in 1981, and Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976. In addition, the United Nations, in a formal resolution, emphasized the need to restrict the number of criminal offenses for the imposition of the death penalty while aiming at its abolishment altogether. As of 1995, the Sixth Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights outlawing the use of the death penalty was ratified by 18 countries. There is a worldwide support for the abolition of the death penalty, which makes it only logical for the United States to act in accordance with the prevailing worldview. Presently, about 71 percent of all countries have outlawed the death penalty in practice or law, with only 58 countries out of 197 retaining the death penalty. This makes the death penalty in the US a peculiar issue. Out of the 58 countries that are still using the death penalty, only 21 reported cases of executions during 2011. Besides, the death penalty has prevented the US to ratify or sign numerous crucial international treaties such as the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It requires parties to ensure that the death penalty is abolished, and the country safeguards the rights of its citizens not to be subjected to any executions.
The Death Penalty Is not an Effective Deterrent to Capital Offenses
Crime deterrence is influenced not only by the severity of the punishment but also its frequency and certainty. People advocating for the death penalty assert that the threat of execution is more effective in influencing criminal behavior when compared to imprisonment. Regardless of the apparent plausibility of this claim, in the actual sense, the death penalty is ineffective in achieving the crime deterrence for numerous reasons. First, a punishment can be considered effective in deterring crime only if it is prompt and consistent. The death penalty cannot meet the aforementioned criteria of prompt and consistent use. This is because the percentage of individuals convicted of the first-degree murder is relatively small, and only a small number of the first-degree murderers are executed. Regardless of the fact that death sentences during the mid-1990s increased to 300 cases yearly, this only makes up 1 percent of all reported homicides. Besides, mandatory death sentencing is not constitutional. Second, individuals committing murder and other violent crimes do not usually premeditate their crimes. Most capital offenses are circumstantial and usually committed in times of emotional stress, or when a person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Even in instances where a crime is well planned, the offender usually focuses on escaping conviction, arrest, or detection; as a result, the threat of using the severest form of punishment is less likely to discourage offenders expecting to escape detection and arrest. An example is the case of the war on drugs, whereby the death penalty has proved ineffective in the war on drugs as any individual involved in illegal drug trafficking is already risking his/her life in case of violence from other competitors. Third, in instances whereby severe punishment is capable of deterring crime, it can be argued that permanent imprisonment is adequately severe to deter any rational individual from taking part in another violent crime. There is huge evidence indicating that the death penalty is ineffective in deterring violent crime. A case in point is the indifference in criminal homicide rates between the death-penalty and non-death-penalty states.
The Death Penalty Is Unfair
Elementary justice and the constitutional due process pose the need for the criminal justice system to administer trial and sentencing basing on the principle of fundamental fairness, particularly in cases involving an irreversible sanction associated with the death penalty. In analyzing the murder cases since 1930, there is significant evidence indicating that courts have imprisoned ones while others have been sentenced to death in a way that suggests that the death penalty is unfair, racially biased, and arbitrary. There is evidence of racial prejudice in death penalties in the United States. In a study of the capital punishment in Texas, it was reported that the death penalty system is an extension of the racist legacy associated with slavery. This way, during the period of 1930-1996, about 4220 offenders were punished by death, and at least half (53 percent) of them were African Americans. Another study also reported that, in Louisiana, defendants having white victims are 97 percent more likely to be convicted to death when compared to defendants having African American victims. The inequalities regarding the administration of the death penalty provide an ethical basis for abolishing the practice.
Death Penalty Is Irreversible
Unlike other forms of criminal punishment, the death penalty cannot be reversed, which provides reasonable grounds for abolishing the death penalty, especially following an increase in the number of wrongful convictions in the United States. Since 1900, on average, there have been at least four instances of wrong convictions every year involving the execution of an innocent individual convicted of murder. There are several examples of cases involving wrong convictions of innocent people. For instance, in 2004, Texas wrongfully executed Todd Willingham for arson-murder of his children whereas no reliable evidence indicating that the children were actually murdered was found. This example of arbitrary and freakish innocence determinations is an indicator of the unending concerns that there are several other innocent people sentenced to death across the United States. Retaining the death penalty amidst the apparent failures of the criminal justice system is utterly unacceptable, particularly when strong overriding reasons in favor of the death penalty are lacking. Drawing upon the irreversible nature of the death penalty, alternative forms of punishment of equal severity such as life imprisonment without parole can be used to address the loopholes that are evident in the death penalty. In addition, the death penalty is less popular among the public when compared to the alternatives. Essentially, the mood of the public is shifting towards a restorative form of justice, as opposed to a more punitive one. A 2010 survey pointed out that 42 percent of Americans preferred life sentence without parole while 40 percent preferred the death penalty. In 2000, the same survey reported that 37 percent preferred life imprisonment without parole, whereas 44 percent preferred the death penalty. It is apparent that the public support for the death penalty is declining, providing reasonable grounds to abolish it.
Advocates of the Death Penalty
Advocates of the death penalty have also raised their arguments to support the use of the death penalty. First, they justify the death penalty on grounds that it guarantees public protection since it ensures that capital offenders will never return to society and that they are completely incapacitated and never escape prison. The death sentence is considered a surer sanction. However, the experts criticize this argument on accounts that the death penalty has proved to be ineffective in crime deterrence. Even after incapacitating capital criminals, it is not effective to deter potential capital offenders.
The death penalty has also been justified because of its retributive power. Advocates of the death penalty consider that offenders of capital crimes such as rape, violent robbery, and first-degree murder need adequate punishment because of the heinous nature of these crimes. They argue that capital offenders should receive execution that is equal to the gravity of the crimes they committed. This argument has been criticized on grounds that the death penalty is an unjustified retribution in the sense that the retribution principle is flawed. For instance, retribution would mean that rapist should also be punished by being raped, and torturers be punished by being tortured, as well.
This research paper has outlined several reasons of why the death penalty should be abolished and replaced with a more rehabilitative form of justice. There are several limitations associated with the use of the death penalty for punishing capital offenders. There is no doubt that the death penalty does not provide offenders with the second chance to change their behavior, which is one of the primary objectives of the criminal justice system in the United States. Death penalty is also irreversible, which increases potential risks of wrongful executions. Death penalty has also been considered barbaric, whereby the condemned individual is subjected to death by lethal injection or gallows. In addition, there is no other democracy that makes use of the death penalty today. This fact raises concerns of why the United States or any other country should make use of capital punishment in this age. To this end, the death penalty should be abolished; instead, other forms of punishment such as life sentencing should be used for capital offenders.
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