Capital Punishment: Bad Policy Essay, Research Paper
Is capital punishment bad policy? This is a question that can not be answered as easily as one may think. More than often the answer to this question is simplified into catch phrases or simplistic arguments. To truly understand this question one must evaluate both sides of the argument because people on both sides of this issue often ignore key elements and variables. When evaluating these arguments, although everyone has an opinion, one must try to be as objective as we can. One must examine the empirical support for these arguments and see how valid and comprehensive the evidence may be. Only after an extensive evaluation of arguments made by both sides, can one truly have a grasp on this controversial and very complicated issue. The issue of capital punishment is composed of a couple main elements that can be separate issues in themselves. These elements are deterrence, cost of execution compared to imprisonment, moral and ethical issues, and discrimination. Only after an extensive evaluation of arguments made by both sides and recognition of the key elements of capital punishment, can one truly have a grasp on this controversial and very complicated issue. In this paper two articles about capital punishment from the book Taking Sides, edited and selected by Richard C. Monk, will be evaluated. This first article to be evaluated is “Miscarriage of Justice: Why the Death Penalty Doesn’t Work” by David Von Drehl. In this article the author argues against the death penalty. The second article to be evaluated is “The Ultimate Punishment: A Defense” by Ernest van den Haag. In this article the author argues for the death penalty. Other sources will also be used and evaluated throughout the paper in order to present a more comprehensive evaluation.
Taking Sides: Yes (Is Capital Punishment Bad Policy?)
David Von Drehle believes that capital punishment is bad policy. To demonstrate his point he goes through the history of capital punishment in America. Although it is important to know the history and why our country practices it, I don’t think it serves as a good enough argument against the death penalty. So instead of evaluating this part of the article I will instead pull out Von Drehle’s major arguments and evaluate each one of them.
One of the first arguments the Von Drehle makes is that carrying out an execution is far more expensive than imprisoning someone for life. The cost of the actual execution isn’t what makes it more expensive; it is actually the cost of all of the appeals and other legal proceedings. It takes a lot of time in court in order to execute someone; this is where the expensive cost comes in. Personally I think this is the weakest argument that can be made against the death penalty. For one thing, the cost of imprisoning someone, in these studies, is usually only determined by only looking at the actual cost of incarceration. They may not take into account the cost of appeals that occur when imprisoning a murder for life. Also I think this gives proponents of death penalty even more reason to try to restrict due process and the number of appeals given to death row inmates. I am sure that if it was up to certain conservative proponents of the death penalty, there would be very few appeals in death penalty cases. This would definitely cut the cost dramatically. I have even heard arguments to throw away due process in certain murder cases. This would really cut the cost to execute someone. All we would have to do is catch the suspected murder, collect some kind of evidence and execute them. That would surely make executing someone much cheaper than incarcerating him or her. To me this kind of argument is absolutely ridiculous and un-American. Von Drehle’s weak argument about the cost of execution makes the ridiculous argument of doing away with due process stronger.
Another argument that Von Drehle makes is that capital punishment is discriminatory. This argument is weak because the evidence to support this argument seems to be weak. It is true that Blacks and Hispanics are executed much more frequently than whites however it is not clear whether this is because they are discriminated against or if they are actually guilty for more serious murders. There is more evidence to support argument that the justice system discriminates with regard to the murder victims more often than murderers. A person who murders a white person is more likely to receive the death penalty than a person who murders a Black or Hispanic person. I do agree, however, that the justice system does discriminate against minorities on a lower level and they are more likely to develop a past record than a white person would be. This may cause minorities to be executed disproportionally due to their past records which were developed in a discriminatorily way. Von Drehle really doesn’t really go into these arguments. Also, even if the death penalty is discriminatory, I don’t think that would be a good argument to support getting rid of it. That would just be an argument to fix the way in which the death penalty is administered. The discrimination argument doesn’t seem to convince people that capital punishment is bad policy.
A third argument made by Von Drehle is that the death penalty is imposed arbitrarily and it rarely gets carried out. Well this is the third bad argument he makes. Again just because there is something wrong with the way that the death penalty is imposed, doesn’t mean it should be abandoned all together. Proponents of capital punishment would easily dispute this argument by saying the death penalty should be given on a more regular basis in order to make it effectively deterrent. Although this argument is totally off, it still sounds a lot better than Von Drehle’s does.
Overall I think Von Drehle’s makes a very weak argument against the death penalty. Although he points out problems with it, he never really goes into why capital punishment is a bad policy. He doesn’t really go into the issue of deterrence, which can be a very effective argument against the death penalty. He also doesn’t address a lot of counter arguments that could be made to almost all of the issues he brings up. Von Drehl’s article is a bad representation of this side of the issue.
Taking Sides: (Is Capital Punishment Bad Policy?)
Ernest van den Haag argues that capital punishment is not a bad policy. He carefully argues five main points to explain his position. Unlike Von Drehle, he includes in his arguments a lot of counter arguments to his position and exams why they are flawed.
The first main point that he makes is about distribution. This mainly discusses the issue of discrimination when the death penalty is imposed. The first thing he does is question why people who think capital punishment is immoral concentrate on the issue of discrimination. If no distribution of the death penalty is moral then why would even bring up the issue of discrimination. He goes on to say that maldistribution is no more common in capital punishment then it is in any other punishment. He then points out that there is no discrimination if the people being executed are in fact guilty. There is no clear empirical support that says there is a lot of racial discrimination in the sentencing of those arrested and convicted for murder. Van den Haag does point out the unequal distribution of the death penalty when it comes to the race of the victim, however he says that this favors Blacks because those accused of a Black murder (which are usually Black) are more likely not to be put to death than are person who kills a white. These arguments seem to be very solid and to me are more convincing then the argument about discrimination made in the previous article by Von Drehle. Although, I do not agree that the justice system is as color blind as van den Haag makes it out to be.
The next part of the article goes into miscarriages of justice, which is about the execution of innocent people. The author claims that this is not a problem and a few executions do not outweigh the moral benefits of capital punishment. I think this is one of his weaker arguments. To me if one innocent person is executed while twenty guilty are executed it is still a great loss and injustice. Killing someone is irreversible. If we execute an person and later find that the person was in fact innocent, there is no way of bringing that person back. If we didn’t have the death penalty and a person accused of a murder is later found to be innocent, we can then release them from jail and compensate them for the lost years. Also when a person is dead they can no longer make appeals. Keeping an innocent person alive and in jail would give them more time to prove their innocence.
Next comes the deterrence argument. Oh how I love to hear pro-death people talk about deterrence. It is pretty widely known know that capital punishment does not deter people from murdering. Most proponents of the death penalty would say that this is because not many executions take place and if they do its years after commit the act. They would say that we have to taken away some due process rights of the accused. The author of this article doesn’t take this position, as I would have expected him to. Instead he basically says he doesn’t care that the death penalty doesn’t deter. Which he explains very well. However, he then goes on to say that the death penalty does deter people from murdering. Yeah, I don’t get it either. I guess he is saying that the strong evidence that suggests capital punishment doesn’t deter is flawed in some way. I don’t believe he backs this up very well though. The fact of the matter capital punishment does not deter people from killing. No study, which I have ever heard of, has found any conclusive evidence to suggest that it does. In the one article that I evaluated Akers and Radelet do a study on this subject. They interviewed countless expert criminologist about this issue. They found that overwhelmingly criminologists said that there is weak support or no support at all for the deterrence effect. Only 4.5% of the criminologists interviewed said there was moderate support for the deterrence argument; not one criminologist said there was strong support for the deterrence argument. When proponents of capital punishment argue for deterrence they almost always weaken their argument.
Cost, relative suffering, and brutalization are the next topics that van den Haag talks about next. His argument about cost seems solid and accurate and is not elaborated on that much. Next the issue of suffering. Van den Haag notes that suffering of the death row inmate can not be measured against the suffering of his victim because unlike the inmate, the victim did not deserve his or her fate. I have trouble with this argument because when a person is put to death they no longer suffer. So if we are trying to make a person suffer for their crime wouldn’t it make sense to keep the prison alive and conscious of his punishment? By killing someone we are rescuing them from suffering they will have to endure if they had to stay in jail for life. People in jail suffer because of their lack of freedom, as they should. I don’t want to make this sound like I am not for improving prison conditions and reducing prisoner abuse, because I am. But here I am talking about suffering with regards to a lack of freedom, not abuse. The brutalization argument I will not go into deeply because I am pretty ignorant of the subject. Basically van den Haag says that killing a murder does not legitimize murder just as jailing doesn’t legitimize kidnapping and fines don’t legitimize robbery. I really don’t agree with that in that kidnapping and robbery usually aren’t used as a means of revenge, murder often is. If the state kills people to punish murders it may send the message that killing is acceptable under certain circumstances.
Another argument van den Haag makes is that capital punishment affirms the murder’s humanity by affirming his rationality and his responsibility for his actions. Therefore we should execute them in order to give them dignity. To me this is a very odd argument. This argument could be made for any form of punishment. Basically this is not a good argument for capital punishment; it is a good argument for punishment in general. No one is really arguing that we shouldn’t punish murders, its just that we shouldn’t kill them.
Overall I think that van den Haag does make a better argument then Von Drehl does, however I think most of the arguments made on both sides are weak. Van den Haag does a better job in pointing out the other side of the argument, and he deals with those arguments very nicely. He is short and to the point and probably uses some of the best arguments for capital punishment. He fails, however, to convince me that capital punishment is a good policy.
After evaluating these two articles it is clear that this issue of capital punishment is a very complex one. I can not agree with either of the major arguments made by the two authors. The only thing I agree with is Von Drehl’s position that capital punishment is a bad policy, however I think he made some bad choices about what arguments to make. He could have made stronger arguments about deterrence, execution of the innocent and moral issues. Van den Haag’s is effective in demonstrating a tough argument in favor of capital punishment.
We are the last industrialized democratic country who still practices capital punishment. Why is this? Most people in this country seem to favor capital punishment, however most abandon this position when presented with harsh alternatives. There is a lack of strong evidence to suggest that capital punishment reduces the murder rate. I have seen stronger evidence (however still relatively weak) to suggest just the opposite, in that it increases the murder rate. Illinois has suspended all executions because many death row inmates have been proven innocent. Who knows how many innocent people we have killed? The way I see it capital punishment is not reducing the amount of innocent people killed it is increasing it. It does nothing to deter people from killing and too many times kills wrongly accused people. We need to abandon this stupid policy immediately. Stop the killing.