Thesis: Death Penalty Ethics and Effectiveness

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Death Penalty Ethics and Effectiveness

Capital Punishment

The use of capital punishment is ethically justifiable for some crimes but is not an effective deterrent to crime. Capital punishment has not proved effective as a deterrent in controlling violent crimes in the U.S. while abolitionist countries such as Canada have shown an appreciable decrease in homicide rates. In the absence of conclusive evidence as to the deterrent effect of capital punishment alternative methods of corrective behavior and recidivism control should be vigorously pursued.

Since the dawn of human civilization there has been a continuous struggle between the good and the bad. Societies evolved and judicial systems were put in place to contain and check criminal behavior. Capital punishment, considered the highest punishment, has been around over several centuries dating back to Babylonians, Greeks and the Romans. Though Capital punishment is abandoned in most of the countries in modern times it continues to be used in the U.S. And some other countries. Within the United States, 15 states do not have death penalty while 35 are death penalty states. [DPIC, 2009] Between 1968 and 1976 there were no executions in the U.S. However, since the 1976 Supreme Court judgment that reversed the stay on Capital punishment, executions have continued though the numbers are declining. In 2008, 37 prisoners were executed while the numbers were 60 and 53 in 2005 and 2006 respectively. [Bureau of Justice Statistics] Capital punishment continues to be a highly controversial subject in our judicial system with diverse perspectives from the ethical and moral theories. A discussion of the history of capital punishment and a comparison between Canada and U.S. would provide a better insight into the subject.

History of Capital Punishment in Canada

Canada ranks among the countries that have totally abolished Capital punishment. Since 1859, when the death penalty act was originally enacted, Canada has executed 710 people by hanging. [CBC, 2009] From 1892 to 1961 the Canadian justice system awarded death sentence to all cases of murders. Only in 1961, the Canadian parliament passed a new act that differentiated murders into capital and non-capital offenses. After years of debate the Canadian government in 1966 passed the Bill C-168 that limited capital punishment only for cases that involved killing of on duty police officers and prison guards. Later, in July 14, 1976, a new Bill C-84 was introduced that replaced capital punishment with life sentence for 25 years without possibility of parole. However, death sentence was still retained for military offenses. Later, in Dec 1998, a new legislation was passed that removed death sentence completely from the National Defense act. The last execution in Canada was on Dec 12, 1962 when Arthur Lucas and Robert Turpin were hanged. [Amnesty International]

History of Capital Punishment in the U.S.

The U.S. has a long history of death penalty and the very first case of federal death penalty in the country dates back to June 25, 1790, when Thomas Bird was executed for murder in Maine. [DPIC] the U.S. Supreme court banned capital punishment in 1972 but authorized it again in 1976. [BA Robinson, 1995] Overall, from 1976 to the present day, there have been a total of 1195 executions across the country with the year 1999 registering the highest number with a total of 98 executions in that year. Of those executed 56% are Caucasians, 35% are African-Americans, 7% are Hispanic and 2% are other races. Statistics indicate a trend towards increasing number of minority people facing death penalty. Since 1999 there has been a gradual decline in the number of death sentences. As per the July 2009 data released by the NAACP, 42% of the prisoners facing death row are African-Americans, 44% are Caucasians, 12% Hispanics and 2% representing other races.

Currently, 35 states in the U.S. have death penalty (Alabama, Florida, California, Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, etc.) while 15 states (Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, etc.) are without death penalty. Within the states with death penalty, Texas ranks at the top with a total of 449 executions since 1976 followed by Virginia (105) and Oklahoma (92). [DPIC, 2009] Among the important decisions was the 2005 Supreme Court judgment in the Roper vs Simmons case striking down capital punishment for juvenile offenders. Between 1976 and 2005 a total of 22 juvenile offenders were executed. [DPIC, 2009]

Capital Punishment (the Debate)

As the debate continues, more than 70% of the countries have either abandoned or put a Moratorium on Capital Punishment. There is an increasing consensus that crimes can be controlled without capital Punishment. As Amnesty International's director Mr. Martin Macpherson says, "Many countries have demonstrated that serious crime can be combated without resorting to capital punishment and that there is no compelling evidence that the death penalty is more of a deterrent than life sentences." [Amnesty International] From the moral standpoint, Capital punishment is viewed as a violation of the 'right to live' and a cruel and totally inhuman act. As the ultimate purpose of the judicial system is the restoration of law, order and harmony it is necessary to analyze Capital punishment for its deterrent effect.

The Utilitarian Viewpoint

The Utilitarian approach views all suffering as 'intrinsically evil' and hence the effort is to seek to minimize the suffering and maximize the happiness to the society. Since capital punishment causes suffering to the criminal it needs further justification for approval. Therefore, under the Utilitarian line of thought, capital punishment is acceptable only if it would serve to reduce recidivism and thereby contribute to the overall well-being of the society. Also, the Utilitarian perspective deems it necessary to assess all other forms of punishments, which could result in the greater good for the society while at the same time cause minimal harm to the convicted person. Therefore weighing the effects of long-term incarceration against capital punishment in terms of the deterrent value is central to the Utilitarian argument on death penalty. By inducing the fear of punishment and by making convicted criminals "incapable of committing future crimes', death penalty serves the utilitarian principle of reducing the suffering and increasing the greater happiness of the society. [Jeff Strayer] Utilitarianism, is therefore a purely consequentialist approach that approves any act based on its usefulness to the society. In other words, under the utilitarian perspective the beneficial effects of death penalty overweigh any considerations of ethical or moral rightfulness.

However, studies conducted over the past few years have resulted in diverse conclusions as to the utility value of death penalty. Some of these studies indicated a positive deterrent effect for capital punishment. Shepherd et. al (2004) was a longitudinal study that analyzed criminal records from over 3054 counties in the country over a period of twenty years (Between 1977 and 1996) and concluded that capital punishment has a strong deterrent effect. As professor Shepherd says, "An increase in any of the probabilities -- arrest, sentencing or execution -- tends to reduce the crime rate. In particular, each execution results, on average, in eighteen fewer murders -- with a margin of error of plus or minus 10." [Shepherd, Joanna, 2004] a similar longitudinal study by the University of Colorado also attested to the positive deterrent effect of capital punishment. The authors of this research studied 6,143 criminal records between 1977 and 1997 and reported that every capital punishment results in a decrease in murders by 5 to 6. [Dudley Sharp]

However, as mentioned earlier, several other studies and literature reviews have reported contradictory claims. In a comprehensive literature review, Jeffery Fagan, professor at the University of Columbia, revealed some of the glaring errors and omissions in the studies that reported positive effects for capital punishment. In particular, it was cited that these studies suffered from causal reasoning and generally ignored other competing influences on murder. The author reported that the 'predictor sets' used in these studies tend to ignore factors such as 'incapacitating effects of incarceration', ' Life without Parole' and the 'epidemics of drug use' along with omissions in other key indices of murder leading to the final 'inflated estimates of deterrence'. [Fagan, 2006] Also attesting to these findings is the 2006 FBI 'Uniform Crime Report' which states that the 'the South had the highest murder rate. The South accounts for over 80% of executions." [DPIC, 2009]. Supporting the abolitionists' argument is the case of neighboring Canada. Canada abolished capital punishment way back in 1976 and since then there has been a decline in murder rates. As on 2006, the national murder rate in Canada was 1.85 per 100,000 population that is down from 3 per 100,000 population in 1976. [Susan Munroe]

Deontological Perspective

Deontological theory considers justice as a retributive measure and views punishment as a 'categorical imperative' and the 'principle of equality'. [Jean Merle, 2000] Emanuel Kant was the chief proponent of the deontological theory of justice. Under this theory any willful digression from moral and societal norms deserve strict retribution. Therefore under the deontological perspective, the deterrent effect of punishment is not seriously considered but rather… [END OF PREVIEW]

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