A View of the Death Penalty

photo by publik15 on Flickr

Joel M. Caplan is an assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University and the Assistant Director of the Rutgers Center on Public Security. Jason Matejkowski is a doctoral student in the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

With torture currently the hot-button issue, let us not forget that we are still sentencing people to death, despite knowing absolutely that it does not deter future crime and that we are likely to kill innocent people. The death penalty does little to reduce the rates of criminal violence and it rarely quells the desire for vengeance or dispels feelings of grief by families of victims.


“If you tried to sell death-penalty stock on Wall Street,” wrote Robert Sherrill in a 2001 issue of the Nation, “the Securities and Exchange Commission would have you prosecuted for fraud. Capital punishment doesn’t achieve any of the things its backers promise it will, and it is a spectacular waste of time and money.” Nevertheless, capital punishment is a sentencing option in 37 U.S. states and the federal justice system. Its existence is based primarily on the punishment ideologies of deterrence, retribution and incapacitation. Its practice is ineffective, irreversible and inequitable.


Many Americans take comfort in knowing, in part, that if ever their peace is disrupted it will be rectified with justice. Many victims and fearful potential-victims alike demand justice. The death-penalty does not deliver. A justice system that sanctions death has substituted vengeance for reconciliation and punishment for rehabilitation.


Read more after the jump.

Pope John Paul II asserted in 2000 that “We are still a long way from the time when our conscience can be certain of having done everything possible to prevent crime and to control it effectively so that it no longer does harm and, at the same time, to offer to those who commit crimes a way of redeeming themselves and making a positive return to society.” Capital punishment serves neither of these goals.


America cannot apply the death penalty fairly and consistently and by design, death is irrevocable, mistakes can never be rectified. Since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, more than 100 death row inmates have been exonerated due to the discovery of exculpatory evidence and systematic errors within the legal system. This raises great concerns about the legitimacy of the now 1,000 completed state-sanctioned executions and of the nearly 3,400 people in America currently awaiting death. Maintaining capital punishment means that we all consciously accept the probable execution of innocent people.

photo by sin_agua on FlickrAlthough death row inmates can include men and women, adults and teenagers, and whites and non-whites, it is evident that certain people are more likely to be assigned to the class of the condemned. Blacks, Hispanics and the poor are all unduly represented on death row. Forty-two percent of the persons executed in the United States since 1976 have been non-white, and minorities currently comprise 44 percent of the death row population.


The scholarly literature on the relationship between poverty and the death penalty is sparse; however, limited finances and resources are common characteristics of these dead men walking. Many of them could not afford their own competent attorney and fewer than half have a high school diploma. It is usually undeniable that the people caught offending are criminals. But, has the society that sentenced them to death really given them a fair chance to be more fortunate?


It is ironic that one of America’s recently condemned inmates had to ask for clemency from a man who centered a gubernatorial campaign on being the “Terminator.” Less humorous is the fact that when an offender is killed by the hands of the state the implications of capital punishment are over for him; but, they remain with society.


Capital punishment in the United States (and even more so its racial disparity) says something about us to other countries. As Robert Badlinter dishearteningly wrote in an article for Time Europe, “I don’t believe that Americans fully understand how their use of the death penalty has profoundly degraded the country’s image in the eyes of other democratic nations.”


Supporters of capital punishment should consider the domestic injustice and global impact produced by sustaining a mechanism of inequitable punishment that, in all probability, kills innocent people. This damage to the nation is far more certain than any potential benefits. Like torture, capital punishment does more than just harm the accused. It damages the fabric of society and it demeans the integrity of our criminal justice system. This should mortify all U.S. residents, as much as it damages America’s image throughout the world.


6 thoughts on “A View of the Death Penalty

  1. Thanks for this post Joel and Jason. In a country where our prisons are so crowded that the rest of the world wonders about our belief in mercy and justice, and in a country where capital punishment prevails without any reasonable argument to support it, we can only hope that the times are changing and that we will begin to work for a truly humane and democratic society, one that allows for everyone’s voice to be heard and considered.

  2. As Albert Camus wrote, in his essay “Resistance, Rebellion, and Death” on the then current use of the guillotine in France: “We are all assassins.”

  3. Academically and intellectually, the absolute claims of no deterrence false.

    In additon, innocents are more at risk without the death penalty.

    Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock

    “Death Penalty, Deterrence & Murder Rates: Let’s be clear”

    “The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents”

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