5 Arguments for the Death Penalty

But Are They Really Serving Justice?

According to a 2017 Gallup Poll, 55 percent of Americans support the death penalty. It might be slight, and down 5 percent over a similar poll taken in 2016, but that number still represents a majority. Whether or not you are in that majority, here are some likely reasons why most Americans support capital punishment. But do they actually represent justice for victims?

01
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"The Death Penalty is an Effective Deterrent"

Huntsville Texas USA Death Chamber
Huntsville, Texas death chamber. Getty Images/Bernd Obermann

This is probably the most common argument in favor of capital punishment, and there's actually some evidence that the death penalty may be a deterrent to homicide. And it makes sense that it would be—nobody wants to die.

But it's a very expensive deterrent. As such, the question is not just whether the death penalty is a deterrent, it's whether the death penalty is the most efficient deterrent that can be purchased using the considerable funds and resources involved in its implementation. The answer to that question is almost certainly no. Traditional law enforcement agencies and community violence prevention programs have a much stronger track record vis-a-vis deterrence, and they remain underfunded due, in part, to the expense of the death penalty.

02
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"The Death Penalty is Cheaper Than Feeding a Murderer for Life"

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, independent studies in several states, including Oklahoma, reveal that capital punishment is actually far more expensive to administer than life imprisonment. This is due in part to the lengthy appeals process, which still sends innocent people to death row on a fairly regular basis.

In 1972, citing the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty due to arbitrary sentencing. Justice Potter Stewart wrote for the majority:

"These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual ... [T]he Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments cannot tolerate the infliction of a sentence of death under legal systems that permit this unique penalty to be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed."

The Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, but only after states reformed their legal statutes to better protect the rights of the accused. 

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"Murderers Deserve to Die"

Yes, they might. But the government is an imperfect human institution, not an instrument of divine retribution—and it lacks the power, the mandate, and the competence to make sure that good is always proportionally rewarded and evil always proportionally punished.

04
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"The Bible Says 'An Eye for an Eye'"

Actually, there is little support in the Bible for the death penalty. Jesus, who himself was sentenced to death and legally executed, had this to say (Matthew 5:38-48):

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

"You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

What about the Hebrew Bible? Well, ancient Rabbinic courts almost never enforced the death penalty due to the high standard of evidence required. The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which represents the majority of American Jews, has called for total abolition of the death penalty since 1959.

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"Families Deserve Closure"

Families find closure in many different ways, and many never find closure at all. Regardless, we should not allow "closure" to become a euphemism for vengeance, the desire for which is understandable from an emotional point of view but not from a legal. Vengeance is not justice. 

There are ways we can help provide closure for friends and family that do not involve serving a controversial policy objective. One solution is to fund free long-term mental health care and other services to the families of murder victims.