Pros & Cons of the Death Penalty

Plus Lists of Where It's Practiced and Banned

The execution chamber in the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana
Scott Olson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Capital punishment, also dubbed the "death penalty," is the planned taking of a human life by a government in response to a crime committed by that legally convicted person.

Passions in the United States are sharply divided and run equally strong among both supporters and protesters of the death penalty.

Quotations from Both Sides

Arguing against capital punishment, Amnesty International believes:

"The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights. It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice. It violates the right to life...It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. There can never be any justification for torture or for cruel treatment.​"

Arguing for capital punishment, the Clark County, Indiana, prosecuting attorney writes:

"There are some defendants who have earned the ultimate punishment our society has to offer by committing murder with ​aggravating circumstances present. I believe life is sacred. It cheapens the life of an innocent murder victim to say that society has no right to keep the murderer from ever killing again. In my view, society has not only the right, but the duty to act in self-defense to protect the innocent."​

And Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, wrote:

"The death penalty diminishes all of us, increases disrespect for human life, and offers the tragic illusion that we can teach that killing is wrong by killing."

Death Penalty in the United States

The death penalty has not always been practiced in the United States, although Time magazine, using research from M. Watt Espy and John Ortiz Smykla and data from the Death Penalty Information Center, estimated that in this country, more than 15,700 people have been legally executed since 1700.

  • The Depression-era 1930s, which saw a historic peak in executions, was followed by a dramatic decrease in the 1950s and 1960s. No executions occurred in the United States between 1967 and 1976.
  • In 1972, the Supreme Court effectively nullified the death penalty and converted the death sentences of hundreds of death row inmates to life in prison.
  • In 1976, another Supreme Court ruling found capital punishment to be constitutional. Since 1976, almost 1,500 people have been executed in the United States.

Latest Developments

The vast majority of democratic countries in Europe and Latin America have abolished capital punishment over the last 50 years, but the United States, most democracies in Asia, and almost all totalitarian governments retain it.

Crimes that carry the death penalty vary greatly worldwide, from treason and murder to theft. In militaries around the world, courts-martial have sentenced capital punishments also for cowardice, desertion, insubordination, and mutiny.

Per Amnesty International's 2017 death penalty annual report, "Amnesty International recorded at least 993 executions in 23 countries in 2017, down by 4% from 2016 (1,032 executions) and 39% from 2015 (when the organization reported 1,634 executions, the highest number since 1989)." However, those statistics do not include China, known as the world's top executioner, because the use of the death penalty is a state secret. Countries in the table below with a plus sign (+) indicate that there were executions, but numbers were not received by Amnesty International.

Executions in 2017, by Country

  • China: +
  • Iran: 507+
  • Saudi Arabia: 146
  • Iraq: 125+
  • Pakistan: 60+
  • Egypt: 35+
  • Somalia: 24
  • United States: 23
  • Jordan: 15
  • Vietnam: +
  • North Korea: +
  • All other: 58
    Source: Amnesty International

As of 2020, capital punishment in the United States is officially sanctioned by 29 states, as well as by the federal government. Each state with legalized capital punishment has different laws regarding its methods, age limits, and crimes that qualify.

From 1976 through October 2018, 1,483 felons were executed in the United States, distributed among the states as follows:

Executions from 1976–October 2018, by State

  • Texas: 555 
  • Virginia: 113
  • Oklahoma: 112
  • Florida: 96
  • Missouri: 87
  • Georgia: 72
  • Alabama: 63
  • Ohio: 56
  • North Carolina: 43
  • South Carolina: 43
  • Louisiana: 28
  • Arkansas: 31
  • All others: 184

Source: Death Penalty Information Center

States and U.S. territories with no current death penalty statute are Alaska (abolished in 1957), Connecticut (2012), Delaware (2016), Hawaii (1957), Illinois (2011), Iowa (1965), Maine (1887), Maryland (2013), Massachusetts (1984), Michigan (1846), Minnesota (1911), New Hampshire (2019), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009), New York (2007), North Dakota (1973), Rhode Island (1984), Vermont (1964), Washington (2018), West Virginia (1965), Wisconsin (1853), District of Columbia (1981), American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands.

Source: Death Penalty Information Center

The Moral Conflict: Tookie Williams

The case of Stanley "Tookie" Williams illustrates the moral complexities of the death penalty.

Williams, an author and Nobel Peace and Literature Prizes nominee who was put to death on December 13, 2005, by lethal injection by the state of California, brought capital punishment back into prominent public debate.

Williams was convicted of four murders committed in 1979 and sentenced to death. Williams professed innocence of these crimes. He was also co-founder of the Crips, a deadly and powerful Los Angeles–based street gang responsible for hundreds of murders.

About five years after incarceration, Williams underwent a religious conversion and, as a result, wrote many books and created programs to promote peace and to fight gangs and gang violence. He was nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize and four times for the Nobel Literature Prize.

Williams admitted his life of crime and violence, which was followed by genuine redemption and a life of unusually good works.

The circumstantial evidence against Williams left little doubt that he committed the four murders, despite last-minute claims by supporters. There also existed no doubt that Williams posed no further threat to society and would contribute considerable good. His case forced public reflection on the purpose of the death penalty:

  • Is the purpose of the death penalty to remove from society someone who would cause more harm?
  • Is the purpose to remove from society someone who is incapable of rehabilitation?
  • Is the purpose of the death penalty to deter others from committing murder?
  • Is the purpose of the death penalty to punish the criminal?
  • Is the purpose of the death penalty to take retribution on behalf of the victim?

Should Stanley "Tookie" Williams have been executed by the state of California?

Exorbitant Costs

The New York Times penned in its  op-ed "High Cost of Death Row":

"To the many excellent reasons to abolish the death penalty—it’s immoral, does not deter murder and affects minorities disproportionately—we can add one more. It’s an economic drain on governments with already badly depleted budgets.
"It is far from a national trend, but some legislators have begun to have second thoughts about the high cost of death row." (September 28, 2009)

In a 2016 California had the unique situation of having two ballot measures up for a vote that purported would save taxpayers millions of dollars per year: one to speed up existing executions (Proposition 66) and one to convert all death penalty convictions to life without parole (Proposition 62). Proposition 62 failed in that election, and Proposition 66 narrowly passed. 

Arguments For and Against

Arguments commonly made for supporting the death penalty are:

  • To serve as an example to other would-be criminals, to deter them from committing murder or terrorist acts.
  • To punish the criminal for his/her act.
  • To obtain retribution on behalf of the victims.

Arguments commonly made to abolish the death penalty are:

  • Death constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment," which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Also, the various means used by the state to kill a criminal are cruel.
  • The death penalty is used disproportionately against the poor, who cannot afford expensive legal counsel, as well as against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.
  • The death penalty is applied arbitrarily and inconsistently.
  • Wrongly convicted, innocent people have received death penalty sentences, and tragically, were killed by the state.
  • A rehabilitated criminal can make a morally valuable contribution to society.
  • Killing human life is morally wrong under all circumstances. Some faith groups, such as the Roman Catholic Church, oppose the death penalty as not being "pro-life."

Countries that Retain the Death Penalty 

As of 2017 per Amnesty International, 53 countries, representing about one-third of all countries worldwide, retain the death penalty for ordinary capital crimes, including the United States, plus:

Afghanistan, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Botswana, China, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, Dominica, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lesotho, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United States of America, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zimbabwe.

The United States is the only westernized democracy, and one of the few democracies worldwide, to not have abolished the death penalty.

Countries That Abolished the Death Penalty

As of 2017 per Amnesty International, 142 countries, representing two-thirds of all countries worldwide, have abolished the death penalty on moral grounds, including:

Albania, Andorra, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bhutan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Burundi, Cambodia, Canada, Cape Verde, Colombia, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Cote D'Ivoire, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Holy See (Vatican City), Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kiribati, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Mexico, Micronesia, Moldova, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niue, Norway, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Rwanda, Samoa, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Serbia (including Kosovo), Seychelles, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Timor-Leste, Togo, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela.

Some others have a moratorium on executions or are taking strides to abolish death penalty laws on the books.

View Article Sources
  1. Executions in the U.S. 1608-2002: The Espy File.” Death Penalty Information Center.

  2. Executions Overview.” Death Penalty Information Center, 23 Oct. 2017.

  3. The Death Penalty in 2017: Facts and Figures.” Amnesty International.

  4. State by State.” Death Penalty Information Center.

  5. The 2018 Death Penalty Facts and Figures You Need to Know.” Amnesty International.

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White, Deborah. "Pros & Cons of the Death Penalty." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, White, Deborah. (2021, July 31). Pros & Cons of the Death Penalty. Retrieved from White, Deborah. "Pros & Cons of the Death Penalty." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).