Capital Punishment Essay Research Paper This page

Capital Punishment Essay, Research Paper

This page aims to discuss capital punishment as rationally as possible. I propose to present

information which may help people make up their minds about whether or not capital

punishment keeps them safe, makes economic sense, or provides a satisfactory “closure” for the

victims of homicide. How, if at all, this information affects your response, either emotional or

political, to capital punishment remains entirely up to you.

The questions of fact concerning capital punishment fall into three general areas: does

capital punishment , freeing social resources for better purposes than warehousing and feeding

murders, or does it actually cost more, consuming resources that could go into preventing crime?

Does capital punishment strike fear into offenders, saving innocent lives by would-be killers?

And, finally, the courts make mistakes; what does capital punishment mean to an innocent

person ?

These questions fit together to define a complex problem. If experience showed capital

punishment saved lives by deterring offenders, the cost would not matter; a certainty that capital

punishment would save innocent lives might even make the risk of wrongful convictions

acceptable. If no risk at all existed of an error by the courts, the question of whether capital

punishment saves innocent lives by deterring murder might matter less. And we cannot limit the

cost of capital punishment simply to money, since society has limited resources, and can only

spend so much on criminal justice. A society that spends money on executions can’t spend that

money on police officers, courts, or jails; to say nothing of schools, vocational programs, or

other measures aimed at preventing crime.

If the broader public view of capital punishment does not reflect the reality, how does

capital punishment work in the United States? How do alternative systems work in countries

such as Canada? And if of responses to murder, and the effect of those responses, differ from

the reality, why?

Finally, does no response but reason have any place in the debate over capital

punishment? The offences which attract capital statutes and death sentences include the most

heinous, appalling, and disgusting acts. Does have no legitimate part to play in this debate?

The cost of capital punishment

Estimates of the cost of capital punishment will inevitably vary greatly, since estimating

the cost of each execution requires multiplying the excess cost of a capital trial by the number of

capital trials, and then dividing the result by the number of executions. I will try to provide a

minimum estimate for the cost of an execution.

Let us then use the cost figures for Texas provided by Dan Cutrer, who quoted estimates

made by two Texas counties. These counties estimated the cost of a capital trial at between

$400,000 and $600,000. If we subtract the cost of a non-capital murder trial ($75,000) from the

median of these estimates, we get about $425,000 to try each capital defendant.

If we assume that juries will pass a death sentence in 80% of all capital trials, and that

the appeal courts will continue to invalidate about 30% of all death sentences, we can assume

that about 50% of all capital trials will result in an actual execution; so the actual cost of each

execution (counting only the initial trial costs) comes in at $850,000.

Invested productively, at a conservative 5% rate of return, that sum would yield $45,000

per year; more than enough to support a “lifer” in jail indefinitely, with enough money left over

to go some distance toward hiring an additional jail guard or police officer.

No estimate I know of that allows for the cost of spending a large sum of money in a

single lump arrives at any conclusion but this; indeed, a Florida study arrived at a total cost (for

each execution) of over two million dollars. Capital punishment does cost more than any other

penalty exacted by the criminal justice system; even my estimates (which reflect only the cost of

the original trials, and not appeals, death row housing, or execution infrastructure costs) come to

this conclusion.

Why the additional costs?

Capital trials cost more for pretty much the same reason general aviation aircraft cost

roughly ten times as much as surface vehicles: the greater consequences of a failure. Defendants

sentenced to life can always continue to appeal and work toward new evidence while they serve

their sentences; defendants sentenced to death do not have that option. Death sentences also add

an issue to the appellate process; the issue of time. The appeals process for a life sentence can go

on while the convict serves the sentence; but the defendant can not “serve” a death sentence until

the courts have dealt with all the appeals. This leaves the defence and the prosecution fighting

about not only the factual and legal issues, but also about the speed of the process.

The nature of capital punishment also makes the determination of culpability complex.

Adjudicating punishment which (under the US. constitution) fits only the most heinous of

murderers involves complex consideration of motive, state of mind, and other matters a court

can never really ascertain. As a substitute for certainty about the facts, the courts can only resort

to a hair splitting scrupulousness about the process of determining both guilt and the degree of

guilt. All of this takes both time and money.

The Death Penalty Information Center publishes a of various investigations into the high

cost of capital punishment.

Preventing Murder: Does Capital Punishment Protect the Innocent?

The idea that capital punishment “deters” murder rests on a straightforward assumption:

fear influences people; most people fear death; therefore, the threat of a judicial sentence will

influence people to refrain from murder. Unfortunately, the fear of death does not govern people

to the degree this assumes. If it did, neither wars nor extreme sports would happen, people would

obey speed limits and wear safety belts, and the tobacco industry wouldn’t exist. If you want to

cite the rational instinct for self preservation as a reason capital punishment must “work”, you

have to discount most of history, as well as most contemporary human behaviour. Nor does the

“deterrence” theory account for the most striking homicide statistic: of all forms of homicide, the

one that takes place most often, in fact more often than all the others combined, always entails

the death of the perpetrator: suicide. People kill themselves more often than they kill anyone

else: wives, friends, business associates, even more often than they kill rival drug dealers.

Attributing any special power over homicide to the fear of death flies in the face of this simple


The mass of the statistical evidence about murder rates and capital punishment backs this

up. At the very least, we cannot prove capital punishment prevents murder, so we cannot

reasonably base a policy on the assumption it does. Starting with the simplest of statistics, if

capital punishment reliably prevented murder, countries with capital punishment should

generally have a lower murder rate then countries without. That this does not occur; indeed, the

United States, with a highly developed and prosperous society, a factor which generally reduces

murder rates, still has a murder rate about three times as high as most other Western

industrialized nation. Within the United States, use of the capital punishment by an individual

state does not predict the murder rate.

Even a casual examination of the available figures makes it clear that if capital

punishment has any effect on the disposition to commit murder, it has less effect than most other

social factors. A society with the goal of protecting innocent people has no reason to institute

capital punishment before changing many other social and criminal justice policies which have a

much greater effect on the murder rate.

Whether or not capital punishment “deters” offenders contemplating murder, we cannot

doubt it prevents the offender from ever repeating their crime.

This section contains sections on the observed effect of capital punishment in the , then a

discussion of the of capital punishment, and some discussion of from the data.

One Example of the Effects of Capital Punishment

Even if social factors other than the use of capital punishment account for the lack of

evidence capital punishment prevents murder when comparing different countries, or even

different states, if capital punishment “worked”, we should expect the murder rate to fall with the

introduction of capital punishment, and to increase with abolition; the Canadian experience

shows quite clearly that this does not always happen.

The following statistical summary offers fairly strong evidence for the proposition that

the presence of capital punishment on the books, its “availability to society” does cause an

increase in the murder rate. Under the Canadian conditions which prevailed during the time in

question, the mere presence of capital punishment on the books did not reduce (or even arrest

the increase in) the murder rate; when Parliament replaced an ineffective capital statute with a

uniform and severe sentence for all premeditated murder, the increase in the murder rate stopped

abruptly, giving way to a continuing decline.

The time series data below begins in 1962, the year before the last actual execution in

Canada. The murder rate per 100000 population in Canada rose between 1962 and 1975 by

0.127 per year. After the abolition of capital punishment in 1976, it declined at the rate of 0.029

per year. The plot of these rates looks like this: Table of Canadian Murder Rated Before and

After the Abolition of Capital Punishment


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