Like the Electoral College, the Second Amendment and daylight savings time, capital punishment has long outlived whatever usefulness it once may have had. But unlike those other hoary institutions, there’s no evidence that in fact the death penalty ever served a constructive purpose at all. It’s just something that societies have always practiced by default, have tried to justify by dogma, and have merely assumed is a just and righteous and productive policy. But all such assumptions are based on faulty premises. Here are the main reasons why the death penalty is a horrific failure.
1. It doesn’t punish the criminal.
Of the several possible functions of a criminal justice system, the one you probably hear the most about is punishment. There is certainly room for all kinds of debate about the proper nature and purpose of punishment, and indeed about whether it’s even possible to punish someone at all. But one thing surely everyone can agree on is that it’s utterly impossible to punish someone who’s no longer around to be punished.
The supposed justice of capital punishment is sometimes reduced to the Bronze Age dictum of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Such a credo is nonsensical and insulting — do you really think the eye of a drug pusher has an equivalent moral value to the eye of a jeweler, or that the life of a cold-blooded killer compensates for the life of an innocent child?
2. It punishes innocent loved ones
No matter how atrocious the offenses a criminal has committed, and no matter how irredeemable a criminal may be, he or she nearly always has family members who are decent human beings, and who are horrified and shamed by the criminal’s actions. The protracted process of executing a member of their family, however disgraced, simply places an additional burden of trauma upon these relatives on top of the horror of the crime(s) committed by that family member.
3. It also kills the innocent
Many innocent people have been wrongfully convicted of terrible crimes — and sometimes sent to their deaths. Some people may tell you that this all a thing of the past, thanks to the magic of DNA testing. Not so; DNA evaluation is not even available for the vast majority of crimes. According to one study, 4 percent of death row inmates are innocent of the offenses for which they were convicted. How many have been executed? Who knows. But how many innocent deaths would you consider an acceptable level of sacrifice to satisfy a society’s blood lust?
4. It destroys evidence
Assuming the death row inmate really is guilty, chances are they have information about other crimes — information that they might reveal sooner or later, deliberately or inadvertently. But they probably won’t be able to reveal anything after they’ve been killed.
5. It eliminates the prospect of rehabilitation
Sometimes people do change. Sometimes they even change for the better. Yes, even hardened convicts. This, indeed, is one of the other possible objectives of a criminal justice system. And it’s not a great exaggeration to say that sometimes the person who is executed is an altogether different person from the one who committed the crime.
6. It eliminates the prospect of restitution
Another function of criminal justice is to provide the offenders with opportunities to make restitution (not necessarily monetary) to victims, their families, and society in general. Dead people do not make restitution.
7. It’s expensive
A death sentence is far more costly to taxpayers than a lifetime prison sentence. In California, it costs 18 (yes, eighteen) times as much.
8. It’s racist and elitist
Black Americans are far more likely to be executed than white Americans. Defenders of the death penalty may respond to this with “Well, blacks commit more crimes than whites”. But that’s hardly a satisfactory explanation. Regardless of how many other people commit crimes, the average black defendant in a capital crime is four times more likely to be sentenced to death than the average white defendant. Furthermore, while the vast majority of black criminals, like the vast majority of white criminals, commit their crimes against victims of their own ethnic group, a black defendant is far more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim is white.
One factor in the disparity between black and white justice is simply a matter of green paper: African-American defendants tend to be more economically disadvantaged; and defendants who can afford good enough lawyers are less likely to be dealt the death penalty. In that respect, the United States is only one step removed from those cultures in which individuals about to be executed can buy their way out of it — provided they have sufficient funds, of course.
9. It doesn’t deter crime
Another function of a system of justice is to deter crime. But the death penalty fails to measure up to this one as well, even after millennia of practice. Its defenders will say, “Of course it deters crime — once you execute a killer, he’ll never kill again.” But that’s confusing deterrence with prevention. Yes, killing someone will prevent them from victimizing civilians in the future. But incarceration does too — and with considerably fewer drawbacks. So there is certainly no advantage for capital punishment on this score.
Deterrence, however, means discouraging other people from committing crimes. And there is still zero evidence that capital punishment does this. On the contrary, the states where the death penalty is in effect have had consistently higher homicide rates than states without the death penalty.
10. It sends the wrong message
In order for capital punishment to deter crime, two conditions would have to be in effect: (a) it would have to send a prompt, efficient and clear message that the execution is the direct consequence of the offense, and (b) potential criminals would have to be duly impressed by that message. But the contemporary American public has a sorely limited attention span, and its mentality connects capital crime and capital punishment in only the most tenuous and disinterested fashion.
Moreover, many of the most dangerous criminals have difficulty processing such a connection. They are heavily damaged sociopaths who have no concern for anyone’s life — including their own. Furthermore, they tend to be of lower than average intelligence. Yet supporters of capital punishment expect dysfunctional and low functioning individuals to correlate the state-sponsored deaths of strangers with the consequences of their own future conduct.
Capital punishment governments expect to teach that killing people is wrong — by killing people. It’s like a parent walloping a child and saying, “don’t hit”. (Many killers grow up in homes like this — or even homes where they get just the hitting without the admonition. ) But as any good parent or teacher can tell you, what children (or adults) really learn is what they are shown rather than what they are told. And the state-sponsored taking of human life teaches people that killing is acceptable and human beings are dispensable.
Globally, there is also a less-than-optimum message. The nations with the most executions per year include countries with a history of totalitarian regimes like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Libya. Is this really the kind of company you want to keep?
Most of the world’s nations have either abolished the death penalty or are in the process of doing so. Isn’t it about time for the United States, and the rest of the planet, to catch up?