Criminal activity and delinquency have been around since the beginning of civilization. The bible records that the first homicide took place thousands of years ago. Governments and authorities have exhausted avenue after avenue to try and protect the health of society, but peace is still something hoped for. The justice system of the Unites States aims to deter, stop and prevent crime. Retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, incapacitation and restoration are the avenues that are used to preserve or restore society to what is acceptable and agreed upon as law and order. The U.S. Constitution was created by our forefathers and serves as the cornerstone and foundation of the order in this country.
“An eye for an eye” is the historic principle that has lasted throughout centuries and is the basis of many of the world’s justice processes today. Punishment is a major factor in the way that the United States deals with crime. Its main function though, is deterrence. The concept of deterrence has two key assumptions. The first assumption is that specific punishments imposed on offenders will discourage or prevent them from committing further crimes. The second assumption is that the fear of punishment will prevent others from committing crimes that are similar.
According to Siegel, the concept of general deterrence means that people should be punished to set an example for others. The severity of someone else’s punishment will put fear into others so they will not even contemplate committing a crime (Siegel, 2012,2010). The idea that punishment should strike a balance with the crime committed, in terms of value, is the explanation for the varying levels of harshness in punishments- from a compliance citation to the ultimate punishment.
Capital punishment is the lawful infliction of death as a punishment; the death penalty. Britain influenced America’s use of the death penalty more than any other country. When European settlers came to the new world, they brought the practice of capital punishment. The first recorded execution in the new colonies was that of Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. Kendall was executed for being a Spanish spy. In 1612, Virginia governor, Sir Thomas Dale, enacted the divine, moral and martial laws, which provided the death penalty for even minor offenses such as stealing grapes, trading with Indians and the killing of chickens (History of the Death Penalty, 2012). Things have changed now and the death penalty is only used as a response to very serious crimes. Capital punishment is the punishment that the offender does not learn from but that the would-be criminals learn from. According to Cesare Beccaria, a person will chose not to commit crime only if he or she believes that the pain of expected punishment is greater than the promise of the reward (Siegel, p. 104). What better deterrent than the threat to one’s own life? But is this truth? Is the death penalty actually effective?
Different studies have shown different stances on whether or not the death penalty has a deterrent effect on crime. In order for this to be calculated, one would have to look at crime rate statistics in a longitudinal study and compare the results with a longitudinal study of death penalty statistics of that same time period. Some scientists agree, by a majority, that the death penalty has no deterrent effect. States without the death penalty continue to have significantly lower murder rates than those that retain capital punishment. A study conducted by David Cooper supports this as it shows that there is a 4 percent to 46 percent difference in the murder rates of states that impose the death penalty and those that don’t (Cooper, 2012). This suggests that even though these states support capital punishment, the murder rates are still higher than those that don’t. One might argue that there is reasoning behind tis finding. An argument for support that capital punishment deters crime could be that the murder rates are what came first and the response was to use the death penalty to deter crime. It could claim that states with low murder rates did not see the need to administer the penalty.
The 2009 Winter issue of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology contains a study conducted by Sociology professor and graduate student at the University of Colorado-Boulder (Lacock, 2009), examining the stances of criminology experts on the death penalty and its deterrence effects. The results show that the majority of experts do not believe that the death penalty deters murder, nor do they believe that existing pragmatic research supports the deterrence theory. The authors reported that 88.2% of respondents do not think that the death penalty deters murder. Simultaneously, only 9.2% of surveyed experts specified that they believed the death penalty results in a significant drop in murder cases (56.6% completely disagreed with that statement, while 32.9% thought the correlation between capital punishment and lower homicide numbers to be “largely inaccurate”; 1.3% were uncertain) (Lacock, 2009).
Another argument is that death row is fast becoming short a life sentence. Many experts are seeing a trend where the time spent on death row is lengthening. According to The Florida Department of Corrections, as of 2012, 12.7 years is the average length of stay on death row prior to execution. This is a two year difference from 1995 when 10.2 was the average years served (Tucker, 2012). In order for any general deterrent to be effective justice needs to be swift and a criminal may take his chances in in fact he “shall not surely die”. A longer time on death row also increases the chance that the offender will want to appeal or that he will be exonerated. This is not that much of a deterrent for the hardened, ice-cold criminal. In his report, Brian Robinson concludes that many offenders would rather the death penalty to a life sentence. One must assume that this may be the opinion of the general criminal population or criminals-to-be. He reported a short story of Michael Passaro, a man on death row for murdering his 2-year old daughter. The man actually wanted to die and the sentence was seen as a state-assisted suicide. The appellate attorney on the case stated that “He does not see the death sentence as punishment. He sees it as an escape from punishment; he believes that he will be reunited with his first wife and the child that he killed, Maggie. He wants to die and has gotten the state to help him carry it out in what is essentially a state-assisted suicide. He is not doing this because he feels a sense of remorse.” (Robinson, 2012)
The report states that more and more death-row inmates have been volunteering for their executions: Between 1993 and 2002, 75 volunteered for death, compared to the 22 consensual executions between 1977 and 1992 (Robinson, 2012). If criminals would rather be dead than alive how effective can capital punishment be on deterrence?
Some critics argue that this shows that death is not the ultimate punishment for prisoners.
There are also strong arguments that support that the death penalty deters crime. An article in The Washington Post reads:
“Science does really draw a conclusion. It did. There is no question about it,” said Naci Mocan, an economics professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. “The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect.” A 2003 study he co-authored, and a 2006 study that re-examined the data, found that each execution results in five fewer homicides, and commuting a death sentence means five more homicides. “The results are robust, they don’t really go away,” he said. “I oppose the death penalty. But my results show that the death penalty deters- what am I going to do, hide them?” (Tanner, 2007).
These data show that if the death penalty were to be abolishes then homicides would be worse than now. The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that in the last decade (since 2000) the homicide rate declined to levels last seen in the mid-1960. It reported 4.8 homicides per 100,000 in 2010 which was a large decrease from the 9.8 per 100,000 in 2001. The highest rates were seen between 1970 and 2000. The same source also gives information on the trends of execution over the same time period. Executions were at their peak in 1930 and declined to zero executions in 1970-the same period where homicide rates began to increase. When executions picked back up in 2000 the homicide rates decreased (FBI, 2012)
Death penalty opponents think that a life sentence, unlike the death penalty, gives convicts decades to recover from their crimes. “As long as a prisoner remains alive he or she can hope for rehabilitation”. Proponents for capital punishment believe that a life sentence only gives criminals the opportunity to commit more crime if they escape from prison or get out on parole. The death penalty ensures that crime will never be committed by the same offender again. Life sentences too often are mere challenges for prisoners to escape, terrify law-abiding citizens and sometimes kill again. The death penalty’s detractors cannot refute this fact: Even the toughest criminals become remarkably docile once separated from society by six feet of soil (Murdock, 2001).
There are strong arguments that the death penalty deters crime in the United States and there are strong arguments that say it does not have a deterrence effect. Based on the research it seems as though there has been no conclusive evidence that supports either stance. Instead, there is overwhelming data that shows a correlation between crime rates and the death penalty. What does this mean for the future of the death penalty? Should it be abolished once and for all since there is no proof of its effect? Probably not, since the United States seeks to bring justice to the victim-justice that is proportionate to the crime. Does the lack of evidence against the death penalty then make it constitutional and just?
It is important that researchers and experts to continue to record and analyze the statistics in order to put the debates (at least debates on deterrence effectiveness) to rest. Does the death penalty deter more than other penalties, like life in prison? Nell Greenfield-Boyce, in his article on the flaws in death penalty research brings up a great point. None of the research from the past three decades addresses this problem. What’s more, much of the available research assumes that people who might commit murder can accurately calculate their risk of being executed if they were convicted (Boyce, 2012).
Nothing is known about the thoughts of a would-be criminal.