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Kill the Death Penalty: 10 Arguments Against Capital Punishment

Dan Brook

We need to kill the death penalty, not people. Here are 10 reasons why, any one of which could be enough.

1) Democracy. The death penalty is totalitarian. I don’t want anyone killed in my name, in our name. When the government prosecutes, convicts, sentences, and executes defendants, we the people are the plaintiff. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that in a democracy, not all are at fault, but everyone is responsible. The current system enforces that we citizens are co-responsible for our fellow citizens’ state-sanctioned murder, which is more akin to fascism than democracy. I dissent.

2) Barbarism. The death penalty is barbaric and an antiquated, regressive, “cruel and unusual” punishment. With all of our advances in the sciences, sociology, psychology, education, technology, and so on, we should have more socially-effective, non-lethal, civilized techniques to punish (and rehabilitate) criminals, while protecting the rest of society. Professor Austin Sarat estimates that “executions by lethal injection are botched at a higher rate than any of the other methods employed since the late 19th century, 7 percent.”

3) Cost. The death penalty is quite expensive and life imprisonment can be cheaper. Over the lifetime of a case, executing prisoners can be three times as expensive as life in prison, primarily due to the higher costs of capital punishment trials, automatic appeals, and the heightened security on death row with lower staff-to-prisoner ratios. Commuting all death sentences to life in prison would save hundreds of millions of dollars per year in the U.S. and many billions over the coming decades.

4) Deterrence. The death penalty doesn’t have a deterrent factor and doesn’t decrease crime. States with the death penalty do not have lower homicide rates. Many criminals don’t get caught, most criminals don’t receive the death penalty, and those who do are typically on death row for a long time, often at least a decade and sometimes more, so would-be criminals don’t typically make a connection between their crime and capital punishment. We cannot conclude that the death penalty has any deterrent effect on crime, including murder.

5) Brutalization Effect. The death penalty is brutal on society. The brutalization effect suggests that when violence is condoned via the death penalty, more violence occurs. Homicide rates tend to increase around the time of executions, due to legitimation, desensitization, and imitation. The death penalty makes society more dangerous by further increasing violence through the brutalization effect.

6) Civilization. The death penalty is uncivilized. Civilized countries have banned the death penalty as have 18 U.S. states, while the governments that maintain the death penalty are typically more corrupt and dictatorial ones (e.g., China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Yemen; in the U.S., Texas leads in applying the death penalty by far, accounting for over 1/3 of U.S. executions). The U.S., as the only remaining Western country to regularly administer the death penalty, is in very bad company and the world knows it, even if many Americans don't, which decreases the legitimacy of the U.S. on human rights issues

7) Innocence. Innocent people are on death row and innocent people have been put to death. These are irreversible tragedies. A recent study concludes that 4% of people on death row in America are not guilty. Since 1973, 144 prisoners on death row have been found to be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. The Death Penalty Information Centre strongly suspects that ten prisoners who were put to death were wrongly accused and killed.

8) Racism. The death penalty is racist and has been applied in racially-discriminatory ways. African American men are disproportionately sentenced to death. Prosecutors, juries, and judges are much more likely to apply the death penalty when the victim is white and the defendant is black. Race is a “potent influence” at every step in the criminal (in)justice system, including search, arrest, indictment, trial, conviction, sentence, and execution.

9) Humanity. The death penalty is inhumane. Killing people makes us like the murderers who most of us so despise. It is not only about what capital punishment does to those killed, but also what it does to those who do the killing and those in whose name the killing is done. It’s bad enough that we are victimized by crime in our society; we don’t need to be further victimized by by becoming perpetrators and enacting the death penalty and then living with the unfortunate consequences.

10) Social Change. The tide is turning against the death penalty. Increasingly, countries and states are banning the death penalty; drug companies are refusing to allow their products to be used for capital punishment; the U.S. is executing fewer people; and public support for the death penalty is waning. Decreased crime rates, changes in sentencing guidelines, diminishing support, and demographics (the young and people of color are much less likely to support the death penalty) are all leading toward less capital punishment and its ultimate abolition.

There are also personal, political, religious, and spiritual reasons to oppose capital punishment. The sooner we kill the death penalty, the better it’ll be. Let’s not wait any longer.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Dan Brook

Dan Brook, Ph.D., is a freelance instructor of sociology and political science, maintains Eco-Eating at www.brook.com/veg, and can be contacted via brook@brook.com.

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