Since 1973 the death penalty has regained its previously controversial place in society. The controversial nature of the death penalty is somewhat confusing in light of looking at the benefits of death penalty opposed to its detriments. A critical first question when evaluating the merits of the death penalty involves defining the purpose of the death penalty. One commonly citied goal for the death penalty is that of a deterrent, a means to prevent future actions which would warrant the death of the perpetrator. Although in theory this goal may seem logical and noble as preventing crime is always preferable to reacting to crime, no hard proof has ever been produced demonstrating a long-term reduction in homicides directly associated with the reemergence of the death penalty. So the goal of using the death penalty as a deterrent does not appear to be working,
If validating the death penalty through its use as a deterrent is not applicable in reality altering its goal to that of a tool for vengeance seems like the next logical step. The question of whether the death penalty actually serves as a positive psychological tool for the families of the victim is essential to judging the validity of this death penalty goal and purpose. Overall it is a troubling thought to think that families actually receive some level of satisfaction when the criminal is put to death over sentencing the criminal to permanent incarceration, but for the sake of argument consider for a moment that this reaction is indeed the case.
Why is it that the ‘vengeance’ mentality demands the ‘eye for an eye’ treatment in this situation? Although ‘ an eye for an eye’ can be regarded as an appropriate reaction, the concern is that some have come to believe that it is the only appropriate response available, which is not correct. Clearly a single action has many different reactions of differing severities. It is unrealistic to believe that only one specific response among a multitude of possible responses is appropriate instead there are a number of different options for redress and justice.
Why do some individuals look upon a lifetime of imprisonment as inappropriate? One of the worst things you can do to an individual is restrict or remove freedom. Although one could argue that the worst thing that can happen to an individual is the loss of his/her life, with suicide rates greater than zero clearly other individuals believe that living in certain circumstances are worse than death. From a psychological perspective restricting the freedom of an individual for the rest of his/her life appears to be an appropriate response for the vengeance seeking individual set on inflicting a significant level of suffering to the criminal as redress for the crime. For certain individuals one could regard life imprisonment as a worse punishment than death for certain individuals.
In regards to what comforts death offers a family over life imprisonment, any significant difference seems rare as both death and life imprisonment remove the ability of the individual to repeat the action against an individual that the family would regard as important or even society in general. The death itself may not be as tragic an event for the criminal as desired because of acceptance of the inevitable.
Also the numerous appeals and legal hurdles rightly involved in an execution typically provides delays of multiple years, which could inflict undue psychological damage on those who want to see a particular individual die, a case of deferred justice. In the end realistically very little is gained when electing to execute an individual over the punishment of life imprisonment for the sake of vengeance alone. Instead by electing to utilize an unnecessary and potentially savage response over one that is appropriate in its own right society could lose another shred of its humanity.
If deterrence and vengeance as reasonable motivating factors for utilizing the death penalty are eliminated, what makes the death penalty useful? Despite its flaws, the death penalty is remarkably effective as a bargaining chip for prosecutors when negotiating plea agreements with eligible criminals in question. The fear provided by the death penalty may not work as an effective deterrent in the prevention of certain crimes, but is effective in neutralizing the vigor in which a criminal may desire a trial. Whether or not this is actually a good thing is debatable. In a logical and perfect world one would conclude that only an individual that is actually guilty of a crime would plead guilty, but unfortunately due to fear and psychological trauma that ideal is not always achieved as individuals not guilty of the crimes they are accused of have pled guilty to lesser offenses or been found guilty by a jury.
So the death penalty may be a great negotiating tool only because of its greatest flaw, its finality. Clearly individuals in the past and more than likely in the present have been killed for crimes in which they have later been exonerated. Therefore, an individual that is not guilty may believe that pleading guilty to avoid the death penalty might be the only way to eventually prove his/her innocence of the accused crime and still have a life to live when this innocence is recognized. The fact that this psychological belief even exists demonstrates a great failure of the criminal justice system.
By stripping the death penalty of a worthy and significant purpose, the proverbial ‘death penalty horse’ has been shot and killed, but just to be thorough it is time to pick up a stick and commence wailing on it. Even if the death penalty did have a worthwhile purpose there would still exist multiple fronts in which opponents could attack both its philosophical existence (even when excluding moral arguments) and its execution (no pun intended). The primary goal of the prison system in general seems to be rehabilitation not punishment. The use of the death penalty displaces that goal for it is impossible for one to become a productive member of society if one is dead. It could be argued that the same failure occurs when an individual is sentenced to life without parole, but such a belief is in error.
Although an individual sentenced to life without parole will never be able to reemerge into society as a changed individual, if the individual is indeed rehabilitated he/she can instruct other individuals within jail and in society on what mistakes to avoid and provide other information and experiences that could better both the prison society and non-prison society. In response to those that believe certain individuals cannot be rehabilitated, the only way to be sure of such a position is to never give those individuals a chance.
Also when looking at life in prison versus the death penalty from a simple economic argument, the death penalty losses out as in every state that has studied the economic differences between death and life in prison has concluded that executions cost significantly more money mostly due to the required appeals that come with a death sentence to limit the possibility that a not-guilty individual is being put to death. Finally with regards to individuals who are deemed too violent for general population, solitary confinement is always available.
Overall opposition to the death penalty could be driven by any underlying concern for the sanctity of human life, but elements of practicality, efficiency and accuracy also play important roles.