Premediated murders of sorts are taking place every day, sanctioned by governments around the world. No, these are not maleficent terrorist attacks directed by rogue states. No, these are not the products of wars and foreign entanglements. Neither are these covert operations carried out internationally à la James Bond. These ritualistic sacrifices originate from millennia ago – they have plagued civilizations from early Chinese dynasties to ancient Greece. In fact, happens in 56 countries around the world, including the United States. This barbaric eye-for-an-eye practice, known as capital punishment or the death penalty, spiked in 2015, increasing by 54% from 2014. (Death Penalty Information Center) Every year, thousands of people are sentenced to the death penalty across the world from North Korea to China to the United States. People are no longer drawn and quartered or punished with death by a thousand cuts; however, that does not discount the bizarreness of the death penalty in any way. Countries that use the death penalty utilize a variety of methods, from hanging to electrocution to lethal injection, with less economically developed countries being more likely to use less humane methods of execution. In both economically successful and developing countries, the death penalty is a costly, unjustified, and ineffective practice that is prone to a host of abuses such as political executions and judicial mistakes.
Perhaps the flaw in death penalty that has the most far-reaching effects on society is the high economic cost and low efficiency of capital punishment in deterring crime. According to the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center’s 2011 review on a report on the use and costs of capital punishment written by Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Prof. Paula M. Mitchell, California has spent $4 billion on administering the death penalty since reinstating it in 1978. Most of the costs can be attributed to the trials, which are often twenty times more expensive than non-capital trials, as well as the cost of incarcerating the death row inmates, which can remain on the death row for years or even decades before they exhaust all appeal options. Clearly, keeping a large population on the death row is not an economic way to go. If the Governor of California were to commute all current death sentences into life without parole, the State of California would immediately save $170 million per year, and $5 billion over twenty years. These significantly cost savings could instead be funneled into programs to provide better environments for at-risk students so that they are less likely to end up going through the “school-to-prison pipeline” that characterizes many low-income schools. Moreover, the death penalty is far from being an effective means of addressing the social issues that underlie a community in which capital crimes are taking place. Despite the large budget reserved for executions every year in the state of California and a large number of inmates on the death row, according to CNN, no one has actually been executed for up to periods of four years, primarily due to judicial barrier. Furthermore, public opinion similarly determines that the death penalty is not the best choice. According to a 2010 poll by Lake Research Partners published in a Death Penalty Information Center factsheet, 61% of respondents polled in the United States would prefer punishments other than death, including life with/without parole and restitution. To make matters worse for this unpopular and economically unsound policy, it has not demonstrated any significant correlation with the decrease of violent crime rates. According to the Public Policy Institution of California, California’s violent crime rate “saw an uptick in 2015,” increasing to 426 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. Ever since the death penalty was established, there have still been fluctuations in the level of violent crime, including a post-1978 spike in the 1980s that was even higher than before despite the recent introduction of the death penalty, which should have held the greatest effect at that time. This could very easily happen again with the current resurgence of crimes, with thirteen of California’s fifteen largest counties suffering violent crime increases and twenty-one counties seeing a rise in violent crime of more than 10 percent. With the inability of the death penalty to adequately address the underlying social issues and its tremendous cost towards taxpayers and defendants, it should be abolished to free up tax dollars that could be put to constructive use in guiding at-risk youth. (According to “The Comparative Costs and Benefits of Programs to Reduce Crime” published through the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, the benefits of intervention programs far outweighed the costs of implementing them in that they increased economic productivity and decreased crime.)
Like all other judicial decision-making processes, the death penalty relies extensively on human interpretations and decisions. However, the death penalty is a permanent and irreversible decision that humans simply cannot be trusted with. They are prone not only to human biases and corruption, but sometimes lead to its abuse as a way of silencing political opponents. Among the most prominent and permanent of these problems are judgments made in courts by jurors that are not impartial, which is a prevalent problem due to racial and other biases against suspects in criminal cases. According to The Atlantic, black residents are overrepresented three times the general population on the death row, especially in Missouri (around four times more) and Oklahoma (nearly five times more). Even independently of the number of black people who were arrested for crimes compared to the general population, The Atlantic reports that “black defendants were four times more likely to receive a death sentence than whites.” According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the five jurisdictions with the highest percentages of minorities range from Louisiana (70%) and the federal government (77%) to Colorado (80%) and the U.S. Military (86%). Undoubtedly, a strong bias exists against minority groups due to jurors’ underlying perceptions of said minorities. Jurors are also human; as such, they may also be tempted by bribes. One among the notorious cases of bribery was in the 1910s when the defense for two labor union workers who inadvertently killed 25 people while attempting to bomb the L.A. Times was caught handing out bribes. While the accused provider of the bribes was later acquitted, this is a testament to the fact that it may not be as difficult or uncommon as we think to bribe jurors. (American Bar Association Journal) The same also happens in politically unstable countries, where political executions are more common. Radio Zamaneh, an organization in Iran dedicated to providing Persian-language content “that gives a voice to the unheard,” released a tape in which high-ranking officials are discussing the reasons for which they are executing a prisoner, hinting at politics. Due to the existence of unacceptable obstructions to the fair administration of laws among all people, no one in any country on Earth should be given the power to decide whether another lives.
Many proponents of the death penalty claim that these death row inmates could be dangerous even in prison. Jeremy Mull, the prosecuting attorney for Clark County, says, “Life Without Parole does not eliminate the risk that the prisoner will murder a guard, a visitor, or another inmate, and we should not be compelled to take that risk. It is also not unheard of for inmates to escape from prison.” (The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney) While it is true that inmates in prison may commit crimes or even escape, the likelihood of that is extremely low, and cases of prison murders are overly exaggerated by the media. Even when outlaws are bundled together in local jails, the nationwide average homicide rate is 3 inmates per 100,000 inmates, whereas the average homicide rate in the state of Washington is 17.5 free people per 100,000 citizens. (U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics) These statistics demonstrate that death row inmates often decide not to continue murdering people in prison. The site Goodbye, Warden compiles a list of last words of prisoners facing the death penalty in the state of Texas, many of them apologetic towards their victims rather than angry about their punishment. Moreover, proponents of the death penalty claim that prison escapes are still possible if there is only life imprisonment. While that is partially true, most inmates that would have been condemned to the injection are placed under stricter security, and thus will have significantly lower escape rates. A rare case is simply an outlying data point but not a controversy. If a rare prison escape should be considered as a disaster to the U.S. prison system, the more common posthumous exonerations might place the United States in dire straits.
Fortunately, signs of change against the death penalty are promising and provide us hope for the future. According to Amnesty International, of the 87 countries that legally have the death penalty, at least 31 of them have not executed anyone in the past ten years. Over two-thirds of all countries, and all western countries except the United States, have abolished capital punishment. Capital punishment has been proven time and time again to be often ineffective, sometimes leading to the deaths of innocent people. Notorious judges, like Thomas J. Maloney, an ex-judge of the Illinois Supreme Court, has been found guilty of heinous crimes like taking bribes to acquit murderers and to give the death penalty to other people. The fact that there will always be corrupt people in society makes it necessary for us to reconsider the permanent effects of the death penalty, even if some opponents incorrectly exaggerate the risks of life imprisonment without parole. As Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj said, “The foundation of justice is a respect for human dignity… under no circumstance is capital punishment acceptable.” No citizen’s right to life should be nullified.
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Ford, Matt. “Racism and the Execution Chamber.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, 23 Jun. 2014. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.
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Tigar, Michael E. “Clarence Darrow is tried on charges of bribing jurors.” ABA Journal. American Bar Association, 1 Nov. 2013. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.