Role of Capital Punishment in US Criminal Justice System

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Capital punishment is the most severe criminal penalty allowed in the U.S., yet most Americans do not understand the facets involved in the use of the death sentence. The use of capital punishment in the U.S. is a growing concern for American citizens. Controversy of whether to abolish it or not creates a moral dilemma amongst many citizens. On one hand it brings justice, yet on the other it is taking ones life which is a troubling condition for many to assume responsibility for. According to statistics, seventy percent of Americans are in support of the death penalty, while only thirty percent are against it (Phillips et al., 2010). With exception to the limited information known with the Republic of China, no other legal sanction in any advanced society is as harsh, yet there is little research on the environmental conditions that influence trial court decisions about capital punishment. This is in part because public officials determine the criminal codes and decide sentences, many theorists view punishment as a political phenomenon (Phillips et al., 2010), yet the political determinants of death sentences have not been studied.

Nearly all civilizations historically have used execution to punish offenders and criminals alike; though many customs are different in present times. Since WWII, societies have routinely tried to abolish the death penalty. Today ninety countries have abolished capital punishment for all offences, eleven for all offences except under special circumstances, and thirty-two others have not used it for at least ten years. A total of sixty-four countries still retain it. This includes the People's Republic of China who performed more than 3,400 executions in 2004, amounting to more than 90% of executions worldwide. Information with regards to China is rather limited, because their government controls all statistics it releases. Within 12 states, the US executed 59 prisoners the same year (Dezhbakhsh, 2006). To abolish the death penalty, people would have to prove points in every aspect of its existence.

The economical argument that people must always consider is the cost of the death penalty opposed to life imprisonment. According to the state of California, the operating expense to finance the penalty costs tax payers over $114 million annually (Schupp et al., 2010). A 2005 report from Newsday concluded that New Jersey tax payers have spent a total of $253 million since 1983, which is an incomparably greater cost than if capital punishment was idle (Newsday). "A 1991 study of the Texas criminal justice system estimated the cost of appealing capital murder at $2,316,655. In contrast, the cost of housing a prisoner in a Texas maximum security prison (single cell) for 40 years is estimated at $750,000" (Dezhbakhsh et al., 2006).

Two Supreme Court cases show that the government had trouble determining a proper settlement for capital punishment and ruled two different ways. In the first case of Furman v. Georgia, petitioner Furman accidently shot a family member while burglarizing a home and was sentenced to death. Thereafter, the Court held that the imposition of the death penalty in this case constituted cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Constitution (Oyez Project). The death penalty was banned for four years until 1976 in the case of Gregg v. Georgia in which the court decided to have two different trials; First, to prove if the defendant was guilty or innocent, secondly, to decide what the punishment should be. The second trial took into consideration the criminal's prior record, age, mental issues, or the lack of a criminal record. The reasoning for a two-stage decision-making process was to ensure a justifiable reason to execute a person (Pataki, 1995). Though the court's final decision is indisputable it is still considered to be disputable.

Capital punishment is a method of retributive punishment. "People that favor the death penalty agree that capital punishment is a relic of barbarism, but as murder itself is barbaric, they contend that death is a fitting punishment for it" (Bedau, 1992). Most retentionists agree with the principal of "an eye for an eye," and say execution is the only way to truly satisfy the public as well as themselves. Who doesn't enjoy it when, for example, a criminal steals ten dollars from a pedestrian and then that person sees someone else steal ten dollars from the criminal. Retentionists feel much the same way about murderers who are sentenced to die. Murderers cause a mountain of sorrow and anger to the victim's family and friends, and the only way justice could be served seems to be for that criminal to die. Prisons serve three meals a day and allow inmates to socialize; for the murderer to simply go to jail seems unfair.

To contrast, "some retentionists consider execution to be more humane than life imprisonment because it is quick and instantaneous" (Pataki, 1995). Some Capital Punishment supporters claim that a prisoner's expulsion to life in jail is torturous and inhuman and execution is not. Proponents say that if murderers are not put to death it leaves open the possibility parole or escaping and causing another death. "We think that some criminals must be made to pay for their crimes with their lives, and we think that we, the survivors of the world they violated, may legitimately extract that payment because we, too, are their victims" (Bedau, 1992).

Proponents say the death penalty deters lawbreakers from committing serious crimes in fear of feasible death. A stern sentence, they believe, produces a positive moral influence that puts a stigma on unsettling crimes. Perhaps this is the intended goal of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. It "establishes constitutional procedures for the imposition of the death penalty for federal crimes. It applies to federal statutes that previously carried the death penalty and creates many new capital offenses. As a result of the Act, the death penalty may now be imposed for nearly sixty federal crimes. New capital offenses include the murder of a federal prisoner serving a life sentence, and drive by shootings in the course of certain drug offenses" (Violent crime Act). Fear and intimidation is the way to create moral and obedient citizens. An example of deterrence is during the time New York had no capital punishment policy. Drug offences and murders rates were at an all time high, as well as gang related crimes and so on. Since Governor George E. Pataki took office and established the death penalty in 1995 he states, "[…] violent crime has dropped 23%, assaults are down 22%, and murders have dropped by nearly one-third. New Yorkers now live in safer communities because we finally have begun to create a climate that protects and empowers our citizens, while giving criminals good cause to fear arrest and conviction" (Pataki, 1997). Though this method of crime deterrence does not work everywhere, for example, California has high homicide rates with the death penalty in effect; it is proven to deter crime to some extent in any place.

Likewise, opponents to the penalty debate whether it deters murder at all. The New York case might have been an exception to how well capital punishment prevents crime. The primary reason that so much controversy surrounds this question is on account of the inability to make any accurate statistics; being it is impossible to know who may have been deterred from committing a crime. Regardless of this factual error, Sean Bailey (1994) sternly says that the death penalty provides no deterrent based on the facts he has gathered. He explains that countries such as Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, and Belgium have not carried out executions since the early part of the century, yet these countries have not experienced a rise in crime rates. The opponents also insist that most murders occur in the heat of passion or while under the influence, and the fear of possibly being caught and executed by the state is unlikely to enter a mad man's head during this time.

Major supporters contend the death penalty doesn't deter crime as well as it should because it is not used enough or announced publicly. In many murder cases, very few people are actually sentenced to death and so the death penalty doesn't act as a satisfactory deterrent. During highly publicized death penalty cases, however, the homicide rate is found to go down, but goes back up when the case is over (Bailey, 1994). According to an examination of the "Death Penalty and Legislature," Henry Schwarzchild calculated that if the courts were to "carry out the death penalty for every murder, and then we would be executing 400 persons per week (Bedau, 1992). Sentencing four-hundred people to death a week is indubitably overkill, but reinforcing the penalty's intolerance will ensure it is taken seriously.

This research paper has provided evidence of the deterrence effect that capital punishment has on crime. While not all aspects of capital punishment are sound and without heavy costs, capital punishment plays a major role in some states in crime prevention. After studying the pros and cons of capital punishment, people are faced with the one remaining question; should people keep the death penalty? Opponents make an honorable dispute fronting the penalty's weaknesses; but even so, the working benefits of capital punishment outweigh its downfalls. Every citizen has the right to be concerned with rising taxes and national debt, but condemning the death penalty for empty pockets, instead of other reckless spending, doesn't add up. In addition, that money aids us in restraining murder rates and also serves as retribution to a victim's family. Ridding ourselves of capital punishment on account of its lack of deterrence would be neither decent nor rational.

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