The death penalty, also called capital punishment, is a highly polarizing criminal justice issue in the US. The US is one of the last countries in the world to still allow the death penalty, with over 2/3 of the world having abolished capital punishment in law or practice.
The US is one of 55 countries in the world that still allows the death penalty and is the only western nation to utilize it still. To some, capital punishment seems outdated and barbaric, but to others, it is a crucial aspect of a fair criminal justice system. For perspective on how Americans view the death penalty, as of 2021, 60% favored it and 40% opposed it.
Maybe you’re still deciding where you stand on the death penalty and want to understand the arguments from both sides. Or perhaps you have a firm stance on the death penalty and are just curious about the other side’s perspectives. So, what are the pros and cons of the death penalty?
Proponents of the death penalty state that it is needed for retribution, it deters crime, it provides closure to the victims’ families, it is the only way to ensure that the perpetrator doesn’t kill again, and it is less expensive than life in prison. Those against the death penalty argue that it is a cruel and unusual punishment, it can put innocent people to death, it is old-fashioned and ignorant, it is disproportionately applied to people of color, and that life in prison is a better punishment.
- A Brief History of the Death Penalty in the Us
- Arguments for the Death Penalty
- Arguments Against the Death Penalty
- Final Thoughts – Pros and Cons of the Death Penalty
- Related Articles
A Brief History of the Death Penalty in the Us
Capital punishment has been a legal practice in the US since colonial times before the US was even a country. We can trace the first execution back to 1630. The death penalty was utilized throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries and reached its peak in the early twentieth century.
The number of executions has reduced dramatically over the years, and only 27 states in the US still allow capital punishment. Since the 1970s, 1542 men and women have been executed in the US, and executions have sharply declined in the last two decades. Execution used to be a legal punishment for hundreds of crimes. Today, almost all capital punishment cases are specific to first-degree murder. However, the death penalty can also be applied for treason, espionage, and a few other crimes.
The death penalty is also referred to as capital punishment because the word capital derives from the Latin word for head—throughout ancient history, executions were often carried out via beheading. Beheading has never been legal in the US; instead, criminals were executed by shooting, hanging, electrocution, poison, gas, and lethal injection. Today, lethal injection is the only method used for executions. However, some states technically still permit capital punishment by other means.
Arguments for the Death Penalty
There are several key arguments for the use of the death penalty in the US, including:
The Death Penalty Is Needed for Retribution
Proponents of the death penalty say “an eye for an eye” is a fair way to punish criminals who have committed the worst crimes. They believe that the punishment should match the crime. They state that retribution is not the same thing as revenge and that it is a necessary part of a fair criminal justice system. Further, many advocates believe that the death penalty is an appropriate moral punishment that honors the victim and brings about the highest degree of justice possible.
The Death Penalty Deters Crime
This argument posits that the fear of being sentenced to death stops people from committing heinous acts. There is no more significant threat for humans than losing their lives. Therefore, legal executions are logical to scare people from committing horrific crimes.
The Death Penalty Provides Closure to the Victims’ Families
Many people feel that if they had a loved one who was murdered, they would want to see the murderer be executed. Proponents state that the death penalty is needed for the victim’s families to move on and not have to fear that the perpetrator will ever get out of prison. It also brings relief to society as a whole when murderers are executed.
The Death Penalty Is the Only Way to Ensure That the Perpetrator Can Never Hurt Anyone Again
The only guarantee that a murderer can never kill again is to kill him. Many prisoners continue to commit crimes and hurt people while behind bars. There is also an inevitable risk that the prisoner could escape or be released one day. Proponents can point to Ted Bundy, an infamous serial killer who escaped from prison twice and continued to brutally murder women when he got out.
The Death Penalty Is Less Expensive Than Life in Prison
Supporters of the death penalty state that the death penalty is less costly in the long run than sentencing the prisoner to life behind bars. Each prisoner costs taxpayers an average of $30,000 a year, with some costing up to $70,000 a year. Thus, capital punishment is a more cost-effective punishment.
Arguments Against the Death Penalty
Opponents of the death penalty point to the following instrumental arguments for why it should be abolished:
The Death Penalty Is a Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Opponents of the death penalty believe that it is inherently unconstitutional because it is a cruel and unusual punishment. They state that killing is wrong no matter what and that two wrongs do not make a right. It is illogical for a society to teach that killing is wrong by killing the killers.
Innocent People Can Be Put To Death
There is an intrinsic risk that an innocent person can be put to death with the death penalty. Humans are imperfect and the justice system is flawed. Thus, the possibility of error will always be present. Opponents believe that one innocent person being executed makes the death penalty a practice that is just too risky.
The Death Penalty Is an Old Fashioned and Ignorant Solution
Opponents of capital punishment point out that all other western countries have abolished it. Consequently, they believe it is downright barbaric and embarrassing that the US still allows it. Other countries where the death penalty still regularly happens are oppressive regimes such as Iran, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. These individuals argue that America’s public image would be improved amongst other western nations if we abolished the death penalty too. Many also believe that capital punishment just continues the cycle of violence. One famous quote says, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
The Death Penalty Is Disproportionately Applied to People of Color
Many people believe that capital punishment is racist and point to the data that although black people make up only 13% of the population, 50% of inmates on death row are black. Thus, the death penalty unduly affects people of color. People also claim that capital punishment is unfair to those who cannot afford good attorneys, as this can make a huge difference in whether or not someone is sentenced to death.
Life in Prison Is a Worse Punishment
Some people feel that life in prison is actually a worse and more just punishment than execution. Life in prison allows more time for criminals to be punished and must face the horrible things they have done. Additionally, life in prison is more humane and eliminates the chances of executing an innocent person.
Final Thoughts – Pros and Cons of the Death Penalty
The death penalty is a very controversial topic in the US, but it is important for everyone to understand the arguments on both sides before deciding how they feel about it. Most Americans still approve of the death penalty for first-degree murder. Still, there are many advocates with solid arguments against it. Keep researching the death penalty to learn more about how the laws surrounding it continue to change.
Hi! I’m Jensen Skinner. I have my MA in Forensic Psychology and have a passion for writing. My favorite topics to write about include psychology, criminology, police, law, finance, and lifestyle blogging! If you need a writer, please reach out to me on LinkedIn and I’d be happy to see if we can work together.