The Death Penalty

The United States is one of the last remaining Western countries to retain the practice of the death penalty as a punishment for capital crimes. I’ve vacillated on my stance towards capital punishment over the years, but recently have become more confident and solidified in the “against the death penalty” position in the debate. However, I’m certainly open to a refutation of any of my forthcoming arguments and am willing to change my stance on this topic. So, without any further ado:

There is always a chance the death penalty would kill an innocent person. Blackstone’s formulation says that “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Interestingly, this viewpoint goes back quite a bit. The principle appears in the Bible (Genesis 18:23-32) along with the Islamic Hadiths. The numbers vary quite considerably throughout the centuries as well, with some authoritarians even taking the exact opposite view, where Pol Pot and Bismark say it is better to have innocents suffer than one guilty man escape.

However, I feel as if this is a false dilemma in regard to the death penalty-for we are not letting the guilty escape, for the choice is merely between life in prison and capital punishment. Several times the convicted were later exonerated through additional evidence (DNA, confessions, etc.), and if they had been executed in the interim, then an innocent man would have been put to death. The criminal justice system can get it wrong, and these are only the cases we’re aware of. A somewhat recent study even claims as many as “one in 25 sentenced to death in the U.S. is innocent”. Poor quality defenses can lead to undeserved death sentences as well.

Moving on, my second point is that I don’t want our government to have the power to legally kill its citizens. Societies are made worse when executions and other barbaric acts are normalized within its walls. Human life should be prized above all else, and the continuation of the death penalty lowers its value. This reason is a bit more nebulous than my others, but I’d prefer our government maintain the moral high ground. I also want society to be as sensitized as possible to the government murdering citizen, less we fall victim to the slippery slope of murdering citizens and get another Stalin or Pol Pot. It also worsens our image globally, as American is then seen as a violent, vengeful, backwards nation.

Could it be argued that the death penalty is a net good because it could act as a deterrent to criminals considering committing capital crimes? This is certainly a complicated sociological issue to dissect, so I initially defer to authority where 88% of the world’s leading criminologists do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent.

My personal, uninformed opinion on the matter is that the effect is probably negligible one way or the other. The economists in the linked study who do think the death penalty is an effective deterrent have varying beliefs in how many homicides are prevented the following year from the death penalty deterrent. In the linked study Mocan claims 5, Rubin 18, and Cloninger around 15. So let’s average them out and say around 13?

This sort of claim seems shaky to me. Let’s try to see it in a better light through an example. Let’s pick a year. Current year minus 10 sounds good because it’s still pretty recent and will also have good data. In 2007 there were an estimated 17,128 homicides in the United States. There were also 42 executions. Thus, around 42 * 13 = 546 homicides should be deterred the next year. So there should be around 16,582 homicides next year, and indeed there were 16,465. Pretty close!

But what about, say, the year 2000? There were 15,586 homicides and 85 executions. So maybe we should have 1,105 fewer homicides the next year, and we had … 16,037. Oh. Is it just me or is this all probably just plain old statistical noise and that it’s extremely doubtful that the majority of the variance in murder rates by year could be explained by how many executions we had the year prior?

Sociology and societal murder in particular are such chaotic systems with probably thousands of different variables influencing yearly murder rates and trend lines that to simplify it to just death penalty rates seems a bit naive. So while it may be a variable, its effect size as a deterrent seems mostly unknowable since it’s muddied by the statistical noise of the multitude of other variables all competing for effect size.

It’s doubtful that the death penalty is largely responsible for the continuing year by year fall in homicides because the homicide rate has been falling in almost every western country over the millennium concurrently with the overall abolition and abatement of capital punishment. Also, there were no executions in the United States between 1967 and 1977, and this is when homicide rates were among the highest.

What about cost? Intuitively the death penalty should be cheaper since killing someone can be done for just the cost of a rope or some bullets. Also, the average annual cost per inmate ranges from $14,000 to $60,000, depending on the state. So isn’t this an open and shut case?

Well, not necessarily. Thankfully the burden of proof for sentencing someone to capital punishment is quite high. No stone is left unturned and all available evidence is intensely examined. There is a considerable increase in defense fees, death row costs, security costs, court costs, appeals costs, etc. Life in prison isn’t considered “as big of a deal” and is more quickly moved along and settled and subsequently has substantially reduced costs. Here’s a lengthy study on “an analysis of the economic costs of seeking the death penalty in Washington state“. It found that on average a single death-penalty case costs around $3 million, and a non-capital case around $2 million. In addition, it is not unusual for an inmate to be on death row for decades. Certainly this all varies and some cases may more clean-cut than others, but unless we are to severely relax the burden of proof for capital punishment, it is likely that the two costs will be comparable in the foreseeable future.

What of the issue of justice? For particularly heinous crimes where grieving families demand death, should we not make an exception? This point is rather philosophical, because in what way is executing the offender grant more justice than life in prison? There are certainly individuals who would prefer the quick release of death to the decades of rotting away in a cell.

But what if they killed someone close to you? Should they not too be killed? Maybe if we were basing our legal framework on the Code of Hammurabi, but I don’t see why such a simple formulation should still be relevant, and didn’t I hear about that sort of thing making the whole world blind? And lest we forget, there will always be doubt, even if it is but a shred, and there is no return from an execution, but there is from imprisonment. Lastly, no amount of justice will bring the victim back-revenge, anger, and bloodlust are normal reactions to such trauma, but can just perpetuate the murder mentality. Healing begins with forgiveness.

On another note, these criminals can still be used. The morality of such is debatable, but many prisoners can choose to work extremely low wage positions (as little as $0.23 per hour) manufacturing goods, and the sales of these items net around $500 million per year.

The more intelligent inmates may be studied for psychological research or make significant contributions to the field of ornithology. However, I do not wish to make the impression I believe that the majority of these inmates are a net good or even close to it, just that the situation is not entirely a deadweight loss.

I will end on a bit of a controversial note. Are our decisions not the combination of our genetics and environment? Are not the entirety of our decisions contained within this three pound slab of tissue in our skulls? Do we have free will? Should we be surprised when an individual with debilitated fetal development, a culture of glorifying crime, lousy education, and poor socioeconomic outlooks ends up committing capital crimes?

How much agency do people really have? Most follow the path of least resistance that was laid down by their respective genetic lotteries, as evidenced by social class generally remaining constant for most individuals. Social mobility may even be getting worse as “nearly 70% of the sons in 1998 had remained either at the same level or were doing worse than their fathers in 1979.”

Personally I’m not sure if anyone can be blamed for their decisions. Of course we should still imprison those whom pose a threat to society for the greater good, but should they be executed? I know compassion for murderers is not a particularly popular opinion, but am I missing some sort of exterior motivating force? If you had an identical brain, body, and upbringing to the murderer in question, would you be able to act any differently?

What of the hundreds of millions of otherwise normal individuals propelled into committing hellish atrocities throughout history? Indeed, I believe most people are capable of committing great evil and have much less agency than they think. So if you agree with the premise that societal pressure can induce individuals into committing murder, is it not wrong for the same society to execute those it conceived?


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