The death penalty is a very controversial and multifaceted subject. There are some who believe that it is justified, and that anyone who dares to take a life deserves to have theirs taken as well. A lot of religious people believe in the Biblical “an eye for an eye”, which is a pretty catchy motto, even if it’s usually taken out of context (it’s supposed to be taken metaphorically, as there are a lot of examples in the Old Testament of criminals who literally pay for their crimes with goods or money). We, on the other hand, like to think of it as a relic of the past which can, and should, be replaced with better alternatives. There is simply no use for it in the 21st century, from both a monetary and humane point of view.
Brief History of the Death Penalty
The death penalty has existed for literally thousands of years – the first ever recorded instance of it was in the laws of Babylon (largely regarded as one of the first civilizations) in the 18th century BC. According to the rules set by King Hammaurabi, 25 different crimes would be punishable by death. In the next 39 century, practically every single civilization that has ever existed has officially condoned the death penalty, with the exceptions being so few and far in between that they’re nothing but an insignificant margin in the grand scheme of things. It’s easy to understand why the death penalty was so popular – it was a quick and easy way to deal with a troublemaker. Criminals and people inconvenient to the state could be taken to the scaffold and never heard from again, while also giving the people a spectacle. It’s very important to know that, for a lot of crimes, there was simply no other alternative – prisons did not exist until the mid 18th century, at least not in the way we know them now. As a matter of fact, the prisons that populated the Earth from ancient times all the way to only 250 years ago are more comparable to modern jails, housing prisoners until their trial or execution. In a lot of civilizations, most crimes were punishable by death, with some of the lesser ones resulting in mutilation or public shaming. During the 1750s, though, prison with hard labor began to slowly gain popularity in the West, with a lot of the less heinous crimes resulting in imprisonment rather than death. From our modern point of view, this can certainly be seen as the world maturing and realizing that there are far more humane ways to deal with its criminals. To further illustrate this point, in the 21st century 140 countries have abolished the death penalty, leaving only about 60 still practicing it. The question is, if the majority of the world has moved on, why are there some who refuse to do so?
Negatives to the Death Penalty
The first and most obvious negative is that, well, executions kill people. Isn’t it very hypocritical for us as a society to punish people for killing by killing them, especially when there are more humane methods of dealing with them? And what if the person we are punishing has actually done nothing wrong? There are numerous cases where people who were executed were found to have been innocent all along soon afterwards. One such case is that of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death for starting a fire that killed his three daughters despite overwhelming evidence for his innocence. Willingham was executed in 2004, with doubts of the wrongfulness of the execution arousing soon afterwards. Several investigations have concluded that Willingham was, in fact, innocent of his crime, yet as of August 2015 the state of Oklahoma has yet to overturn his verdict. If he hadn’t been executed, chances are he would’ve already been released based on the aforementioned investigations.
Even if we leave the humanitarian and judicial concerns, there’s also the monetary and purely practical ones. Cases that pursue the death penalty tend to be a lot more expensive to the state than cases that only pursue life without parole due to the former being a lot more complex and lengthy than the latter. If the state of California alone replaces the death penalty with life without parole, it will save $1 billion in taxpayer’s money over the next five years. Additionally, due to the different living conditions, the price of accommodating just one death row inmate a year is $90,000 higher than the same price for someone serving life without parole – and keep in mind, death row inmates are often imprisoned for at least 10-15 years before their execution. When all is said and done, on average, every execution (meaning the trial, imprisonment and the eventual procedure to put the prisoner to death) costs the state about $250 million. And remember – these are all taxpayers’ money that could be used for the improvement of the community.
So, What Is The Alternative?
Basically – life without parole. A lot of death penalty proponents stipulate that convicted criminals will be out on the streets in seven to twenty years, potentially unleashing them back on society. Nobody wants a vengeful serial killer or rapist back on the streets and free to track down the people who testified against him – that’s a scenario straight out of a nightmare! But in reality, most people sentenced to life without parole for violent crimes are not released at all, and the ones who are usually released after at least 25-30 years in prison, by which point most of them are old men and women anyway. As mentioned above, life without parole also costs a lot less and allows for mistakes to be corrected. Overall, we feel like the death penalty has a lot of negative sides and no positive ones, and while life without parole is not a perfect solution, it certainly beats the alternative.