Essay, Research Paper
Imagine a man who commits murder once, is given a fifteen-year jail sentence and is returned to the streets where he kills again. He is imprisoned again only to be released. This could happen since almost one in ten death row inmates has been convicted of murder at least once. That means that some death row inmates have been given more than one chance to rehabilitate in prison and continue to commit violent crimes. Should the United States justice system continue to let violent criminals back on the streets where they are likely to commit murder again? Capital punishment is one of the oldest forms of punishment in the world. Most societies have thought it to be a fair punishment for severe crimes, and it is even mentioned as an appropriate punishment in the Bible. American colonists used capital punishment before the United States was a country, and most states use it today. Currently, however, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the death penalty. Capital cases are long and expensive, and there is no proof to whether capital punishment deters crime. For these reasons total abolition may be the best way to resolve the capital punishment controversy. If the laws concerning capital punishment were modified, however, capital punishment could become much cheaper, and possibly a lot more effective.
There is not enough evidence to prove whether or not capital punishment deters crime. If the state governments used the death penalty consistently it could become an effective deterrent of violent crime. When trying to determine whether capital punishment does deter crime criminologists are forced to compare states that do have capital punishment to those that hardly use it. This makes it almost impossible to learn anything from the study. If all states used capital punishment consistently with certain crimes it would become easier to see the deterrence effect of capital punishment. Capital punishment needs to be implemented in each state, and each state needs to use it consistently. Anyone convicted of a murder more than once or anyone convicted of first degree murder should be put to death. These consistencies should help to deter potential criminals from committing murder. If the death penalty could deter violent crimes it would be of great value to society. Another problem with the capital punishment system used currently is the fact that capital cases are very expensive. Today it takes a long time for a capital case to be finished and there is very few death row inmates are put to death a year. If the courts sped up the cases and limit appeals that they allow death row inmates capital punishment would become much cheaper. Capital punishment could be a very effective punishment if the government implemented it in every state, used it consistently, and limited the appeal process of capital cases.
Capital punishment is one of the oldest institutions in America. Americans have implemented capital punishment ever since Daniel Frank of Virginia was put to death in 1622. Since then more than 18,000 convicted felons have been put to death. (Bedau, 3) Most Americans have always thought that capital punishment was a fair and necessary punishment in America, and over 60% still feel that way today. Despite the fact that most people support the death penalty, there is a large group of people that oppose it. The opposition of the death penalty has been successful in limiting the use of the death penalty as well as the methods used. The government of the United States has brought an end to public executions and mandatory capital sentencing as well as causing courts to give an appellate review in capital cases. Some state governments have never implemented the death penalty, and others have experimented with temporary or total abolition of capital punishment. State legislatures have also tried to develop more humane methods of execution.
Much of American laws regarding capital punishment came from British law, including the separation of types of murder. In the late eighteenth century Sir William Blackstone of England defined all homicide as murder unless it was justified by the permission of the law, done as an accident, or done in self-preservation. The English government as well as the early American government adopted this definition in dividing malicious murder and acceptable homicide. In 1793 William Bradford, the Attorney General in Pennsylvania, divided different types of murder into “degrees”: all murder, which shall be perpetrated by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kinds of willful, deliberate and premeditated killing, or which shall be committed in the perpetration or attempt to perpetrate arson, rape, robbery, or burglary, shall be deemed murder of the first degree; and all other kinds of murder shall be deemed murder in the second degree; and the jury, before whom any person indicted for murder shall be tried, shall, if they find such person guilty thereof, ascerain in their verdict, whether it be murder of the first or second degree (Bedau, 4). This classic definition of degrees of murder allows juries to convict murders of different types of murder depending on the seriousness of the crime. Ohio and Virginia quickly adopted the definition, and most other states soon followed.
The American colonies also inherited the English law code, which contained several dozen capital statutes. American legislatures soon reduced this list greatly. Most colonies reduced the list to about a dozen offenses such as idolatry, witchcraft, blasphemy, murder, manslaughter, poisoning, beastiality, sodomy, adultery, man stealing, false witness in a capital trial, and rebellion (Bedau, 7). As the church and American government separated religious crimes were removed from the list. As opposition to capital punishment began to grow, state legislatures eliminated non-violent crimes from the list of capital statutes.
Many state legislatures changed their methods of execution to keep within the limits of the Constitution. Many opponents of capital punishment have argued against the death penalty because they feel that it is cruel and unusual punishment and goes against the Constitution. States have reformed their methods of execution to try to make them as humane as possible. Before the Constitution people were pressed to death, drawn and quartered, and burned at the stake. These forms of punishment were soon dismissed because they were considered cruel and unusual by the Bill of Rights. New York adopted the electric chair in 1888 because the state felt that it was more humane than the traditional hanging since a person in the electric chair should go unconscious after the initial shock (Bedau, 15). This happens in ideal cases, but in some instances people have obviously been conscious after the initial shock. Other modern forms of execution include lethal injection and the gas chamber. Public executions were very common in early American times, but many people thought that it was cruel for the public to watch a person is executed. In 1835 New York ended public executions, and many other states soon followed this practice.
The United States’ Congress and State legislatures have changed the court’s roles in capital cases as well as passing legislature to modify the death penalty. State legislatures eliminated capital sentencing so that the jury has discretion over whether it wishes to give the death penalty in a certain case. This allows the jury to convict someone of a severe crime and not put him or her to death if they feel that the person does not deserve the death penalty. In the 1970’s the Supreme Court decided that a person sentenced to death has the right to an automatic appeal. The appellate courts do not review the actual trial in capital cases, just the sentencing. They decide whether a particular death row inmate deserved the death penalty for their crime.
A few states never implemented capital punishment, and others have abolished it temporarily or permanently. States such as Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania had been receiving petitions to abolish the death penalty since the 1830’s. By World War I many states had completely abolished the death penalty. These states include Kansas, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon, South Dakota, North Dakota, Tennessee, Arizona, and Missouri. Only North Dakota and Minnesota did not reinstate the death penalty in the twenties or thirties (Bedau, 21-22). Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin are the states that do not have the death penalty (Haag, 75).
Capital punishment has always been a highly controversial institution in America. Opponents of the death penalty argue that the only goal of the American judicial system should be rehabilitation. They also believe that it does not deter crime. John P. Conrad states “There is not a jot of evidence that the deterrence of the death penalty affects the populations of potential murderers that is intended to deter (Murphy, 126). ” There is really no proof as to whether capital punishment deters crime, but if used consistently in every state it could possibly become a good deterrent of violent crimes. If a person knows that he is going to receive the death penalty for committing a murder he probably would not carry it out. The system of capital punishment used in America has several flaws such as inconsistency and high expenses, but the United States government should try to improve the system before abolishing it.
There is no proof that capital punishment deters people from committing violent crimes, but the death penalty is not used consistently enough for a potential criminal to know that he will get the death penalty for committing violent crimes. Most people fear death a great deal, and if the courts used it consistently people would probably fear committing violent crimes. Most people would choose almost any type of life, including life in prison, over death. Ernest van den Haag discusses this theory through a newspaper story: I noticed a story in the paper the other day about a French heroin smuggler who pleaded guilty in a New York court because, as his lawyer admitted, he preferred irrevocable life imprisonment here to the guillotine in France. In fact, all prisoners prefer life. For even if the sentence is irrevocable, as long as there’s life, psychologically, there’s hope (Haag, 142). This Frenchman fears death more than life in prison because there is no hope for him when he is dead, but he still thinks that there is hope as long as he is alive. Increasing a threat deters from crime, just as increasing a price deters from purchasing (Haag, 81).
One reason that capital punishment has not been proven to be an effective deterrent even though people fear death a great deal is the fact that criminals do not expect the death penalty when committing a murder. Anyone committing a crime expects a prison sentence if caught, but they do not necessarily expect the death penalty. If the state legislatures revised their laws so that a person would be executed after their second murder or after one-second degree murder a potential criminal knows the consequences of committing a murder. A person probably would not commit a murder that they would have to pay for with their own life. “The [amount of dangerous criminals] would be smaller if there were frequent and severe punishment”
Currently capital punishment is very expensive. This is due mainly to long and multiple appellate cases. To reduce the costs of capital cases the court system should give a death row inmate only one appeal, which has to be done in a short period of time. If he is still guilty and deserves the death penalty the execution should be carried out soon after the appellate case. Appellate courts review the sentencing of someone who has received the death penalty as opposed to the guilt of the defendant. If the crime warrants the death penalty, however, the courts should not review the sentencing, but instead review the innocence of the defendant. This would help to eliminate wrongful sentencing as well as ensure the consistency of the death penalty.
Rehabilitation should be the main goal of America’s judicial system, but in certain cases the system does not rehabilitate criminals. A person that opposes the death penalty for the reason that our prison system should only try to rehabilitate and not punish would either continue to let a person out of jail or keep them in prison for life. Continually releasing a dangerous criminal is not practical because it endangers society. Keeping someone in jail for life is a form of punishment, and achieves the same thing as capital punishment by permanently taking them out of society. Therefore a repeat offender of second-degree murder should be executed, as well as those who deliberately carry out a planned murder.
Capital punishment has been a controversial institution in America since its beginnings. There has been a growing opposition to the death penalty who want it abolished because of its high cost and because it is not proven to deter crime. Reforming the death penalty, however, might be more beneficial to society than abolishing it. If the courts limited the number of appeals and if the prisons carried out the sentences quickly capital punishment could become much less expensive. Every state needs to implement capital punishment to keep it consistent throughout the country. To work as an effective deterrent each state needs to implement capital punishment consistently over certain crimes. Those convicted of first degree murder as well as repeat offenders of second degree murder should be executed because they cannot be trusted in society and are of no use to it.
Bedau, Hugo Adam. The Death Penalty in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Conrad, John P. and Ernest van den Haag. The Death Penalty: A Debate. New York: Plenum Press, 1983.
Murphy, Jefrie G. Punishment and Rehabilitation. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1985.