I’m new to Helium.com and not yet familiar with the rules of etiquette regarding countering of arguments made by other members but, after reading the three posts on the topic “Arguments in favor of the Death Penalty” I felt compelled to offer a counterpoint. State sponsored murder is a tool of tyrants and an abomination of the principles upon which this nation was founded to uphold. There is no place in a liberal democratic (note small “l” small “d”) justice system for the Death Penalty given its fallibility and its injudicious use. There are a plethora of cases of individuals wrongly sentenced to death along with mountains of evidence showing the far greater likelihood of a death sentence being handed down to a minority convicted of a crime of similar circumstances to a white person.
I intend to show the arguments supporting the continued use of the Death Penalty offered by Amanda and Kelly in their posts hold no water; I will tackle these arguments in the order they are offered in the above posts. I have chosen intentionally to exclude the article written by Mr. Davis Moturi because it is either a farce or, if serious, is too monstrous to be taken seriously.
Amanda offers three arguments in her support for the Death Penalty; deterrence, costs and justice for the aggrieved proposing each “holds advantages for the general public over life without parole”, the most likely alternative sentence to death. In her argument for the death penalty as a deterrent for potential murderers Amanda uses fallacious arguments and plays fast and loose with statistical “evidence”. The claim that the potential of a death sentence has the effect of “instilling the fear in would-be criminals of being severely punished for their actions” assumes a cause and effect that is impossible to verify. How do you prove a person decided not to commit a murder out of fear of being sentenced to death upon being caught?
The statistical “evidence” Amanda provides is equally weak. While she asserts her numbers were culled from the U.S. Department of Justice they do not mesh with the information I found by accessing the U.S. DoJ Bureau of Justice Statistics at www.ojp.usdoj.gov.
Lets compare the numbers Amanda uses with the official statistics, Amanda looks to Alaska, California, Texas and West Virginia to make her case for the effectiveness of the Death Penalty as a deterrent specifically using data from 1976 through today arguing that “since the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was a legitimate punishment in 1976, crime rate in states, such as California and Texas that uphold the death penalty have decreased.” The blanket use of “crime rates” is an ineffective tool for measuring the effectiveness of the death penalty because the death penalty only applies to one specific crime, murder. We must exclude non-death penalty offenses from any analysis of the death penalty to arrive at a conclusion anywhere near rational.
Starting with Texas Amanda claims an “over thirty percent drop” in violent crime over the period in question. According to the US DoJ Bureau of Justice Statistics there were 1,519 homicides in Texas in 1976 compared with 1364 in 2004 a decrease of 11% over three decades. And, while it is true that the overall number did eventually decrease in the immediate aftermath of the 1976 legitimization of the Death Penalty murder rates in Texas increased for 7 consecutive years before leveling off in the 2,000 range until finally beginning to drop off in the mid 1990’s mirroring a nation wide trend.
California, the other Death Penalty state noted by Amanda, had, again according to the Department of Justice, an 7% increase in the number of murders over this thirty year span from 2,220 in 1976 to 2,392 in 2004. Like Texas, California saw a rise in murder rates for the years immediately following the Supreme Court decision coming to a head in 1993 with 4,096 murders and dropping precipitously through the later half of the 90’s and into the beginning of this century.
The counterpoint Amanda uses in this argument are Alaska and West Virginia, (odd choices in my opinion due to their low population density and dramatic demographic differences between the two sets but whatever, lets run with it). Amanda claims that “Alaska and West Virginiahave had an increase in crime rates of around thirty percent”. Again using DoJ statistics we can see that in 1976 there were 43 and 122 homicides in Alaska and West Virginia respectively compared with 37 and 68 in 2004, decreases of 14% and 45% no where near the increased violence described by Amanda.
If we look not at the number of murders but the murder rate as measured in homicides per 100,000 persons the trends remain the same. Using the same Bureau of Justice Statistics we see a decrease of 58% (from 11.3 to 4.8 murders per 100,000 persons between 1976 and 2005) in Alaska and 35% in West Virginia comparable to drops of 44% and 50% in California and Texas during the same span. As I said above these numbers mirror national trends over this span. Nation wide there were 18,780 “murders and cases of non-negligent manslaughter” in 1976, the number rose through the late 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s before dropping for several years (though recently the numbers have risen) to 16,692 a change of a mere 12% in the three decades of “legitimate” capital punishment. The change in murders by population is better, from 8.7 to 5.6 murders per 100,000 people a drop of 36%.
So, what do these numbers tell us? Holding the statistical data from California and Texas alone one could come to the conclusion that the Death Penalty has served as a deterrent to would-be murderers but that would be false. When examined alongside data culled from states that do not enforce a Death Penalty we can see a trend away from murderousness across the country whether or not a particular jurisdiction enforces a Death Penalty or not suggesting that, even if capital punishment were an effective deterrent, it is no more so then the societal trends decreasing our murder rate nation wide.
Amanda’s second argument is that the Death Penalty is a cost effective method of dealing with violent offenders or, at least, more cost effective then incarceration. Doing some quick research on the afore mentioned DoJ Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics (CDC NCHS) I was able to determine the “average” homicide offender is a Black male between 18 and 24 (25.2% of homicide offenders fall in that age range and 24.1% are African-American) and that the life expectancy of a black male born in the 1980’s is just shy of 64 years of age. Let it be noted here that I fall in to both of these categories to preempt any claims of bias or racism in this analysis.
Using the median age for your “average” offender and extrapolating that to the end of his expectant natural life the state would hold this man in prison for 43 years, assuming Amanda is accurate in her statement that it costs an average of $34,200 to house a prisoner for a year the cost to the tax payers for this fictional inmate comes to $1,470,600. Again, assuming accuracy in Amanda’s reporting your average Death Row inmate spends 8 years awaiting his execution at a cost of $60,000 per annum for a total of $480,000 in tax payer money.
Unfortunately Amanda’s numbers do not appear to be on point. According to the DoJ the average operating cost to incarcerate one inmate in federal prison for fiscal year 2001 was $22,632 26% of which goes to the basic living expenses (medical care, utilities, food service and housing). Now we have a cost of $973,176 to house our “average” murder for the rest of his natural life. But wait, there’s more. Only 23% of convicted murders are sentenced to life in prison, another 2% are sentenced to death leaving the bulk (75%) of convicted murders with sentences expressed in days, months and years with the median sentence, again according to the DoJ, being 242 months or, 20 years and 2 months. This would put the cost to tax payers at around $456,412 to house, feed and care for a convicted killer for his entire prison term. According to a report to the Washington State Bar Association regarding the costs of trying a death penalty case it costs an additional $470,000 to prosecute an individual and seek a death sentence then it does to try them for aggravated murder with a non-lethal sentence. Add to that the extra $100,000 a death penalty appeal costs and the extra $137,000 a petition for personal restraint costs and the Death Penalty isn’t looking quite so cost effective.
Other states have come to similar findings. A report by New Jersey Policy Perspectives, a non-partisan non-profit organization that researches state policy, found the Garden State spent $253,000,000 on a death penalty system that has accounted for 197 capital trials leading to 60 death sentences of which none have been executed and 50 have been reversed. Even spreading that out equally by each trial we’re looking at $1.28 million each. In case the reader is worried about a liberal bias to my argument we can look to a review done by the state of Kansas that concluded death penalty cases are 70% more expensive then their non-capital counterparts, that investigating a death-penalty case is three times as expensive as a non-death case, trial costs are 16 time higher, and the cost of appeal is 21 times as high. And Indiana’s Criminal Law Study Commission found that the cost of the death penalty in their state is 38% more then the total cost of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Clearly the budget conscious state should do away with capital punishment.
Amanda’s final argument goes thusly; “[t]he last advantage [of the death penalty] is the use of just’ punishment of the criminals”. I could not disagree more strenuously. Justice is by its very definition tied to morality and killing is always amoral. The wrong committed by the killer does not excuse or warrant our nation to stoop to that level, one of the responsibilities of a government is to provide an example from which her citizens can take example. We are a nation of laws, more importantly we hold ourselves and our nation up to be a beacon of freedom, liberty and justice for the world to see. How does death penalty reconcile with that?
Amanda’s final argument segues us nicely to Kelly’s article, Kelly begins her argument with a statement “[w]hen a person kills in cold blood, they deserve the death penalty” echoing the sentiment of the previous argument for “just” punishment, one bad turn deserving of another. Again we are talking about vengeance not justice. From here Kelly’s arguments rely heavily upon emotion and hyperbole referring to a prison sentence as an “extended vacation where [the prisoner] will be fed properly, have a warm and dry place to sleep, have medical care” or “life on the inside has become a stroll through the park and the rest of us law-abiding citizens are paying the price”. I would like to ask Kelly if she or anybody she knows has ever been inside of a prison, clearly not if that is what she thinks prison is like. I suppose it is easy to get worked up over the idea of a convicted murderer relaxing with his feet up, sipping cocktails on the tax payers dime but that is simply not the case.
Kelly then calls for a return to “hard-labor” for convicts and for withholding the basic necessities of life (food, shelter, medical care) from prisoners who refuse to work. It is Kelly’s belief is that if “a potential criminal knew that prison is not a nice place” he or she would abstain from criminal activities. But we have seen above that death does not work as an effective deterrent, why should we believe that labor would work any better? The labor idea also raises a plethora of potentially very expensive problems. When prisoners forced to work for their food and lodging start to sue the state for work related injuries, for violation of their constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment, when prisoners begin to go on hunger strikes to protest being forced into bondage it will be tax payers footing the bill.
The notion of cruel and unusual punishment brings us to Davis’ article. I have to assume this is a farce in the fashion of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” because the suggestion that we take a page from China’s human rights playbook and begin forcibly harvesting organs from executed prisoners is monstrous. Lauding the People’s Republic for executing two times as many prisoners per capita as we do, calling it a “remarkable accomplishment” smacks of sarcasm.
It is true that we have a problem with criminality in this country. We attack and harm one another at a rate far greater then any other industrialized nation and imprison a greater portion of our population then any comparable country on Earth. For decades we have taken a “get tough” approach to dealing with criminal behavior. We’ve declared a war on drugs, a war on gangs, and a war on crime and in a lot of ways these programs have borne fruit. Violent crime rates are down significantly from where they were in previous years. But locking individuals up is only a partial solution, we have to cure the social ills that lead people to criminal behavior to move our nation to greater peace with itself.
I certainly do not have all the answers but the Death Penalty is not the solution to ending murder in our or in any country, it simply does not work. Capital Sentences do not serve as deterrents, the process is financially irresponsible as well as being antithetical to the principles our nation stands for.