This article is the first of a two-part series on PolicyMic examining the role of the death penalty in the modern world.
The United States has been home to some of the most heinous and inhuman crimes in the past year. Examples include the monstrous acts of the Boston bombers, kidnapper & rapist, deranged shooter, and mutilator. However, the U.S. judicial system has been reluctant to exercise one of its most just institutions against these criminals. The death penalty, or put more eloquently capital punishment, has come under attack in recent years not just by U.S. legislators but by the international community. The U.S. and Japan remain the last two of the most industrialized and free societies to support capital punishment. As the leader of the free world, the U.S. must retain and exercise its right to the death penalty. By doing so, justice will be served to its citizens, and crime will be prevented from those who go against the American principles of liberty and a pursuit of happiness.
Contrary to major media bias, most Americans support the use of capital punishment. The most recent polling example includes 70% of Americans wanting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev put to death if he is convicted of the Boston Marathon bombing. Similarly, polls also showed support for utilizing the death penalty in the cases of James Holmes and against recent kidnapper and rapist Ariel Castro.
In such cases, support for the death penalty is no anomaly. Despite well-funded efforts by death-penalty abolitionists, support for this institution remains very high. Recently, longtime opponent Governor Martin O’Malley repealed capital punishment. This legislation followed a year after Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy signed his state's termination of its institution.
In both cases, it would be more accurate to say that the governors, or local politicians, and not the state have repealed capital punishment. The Washington Post reported in February that a majority of Marylanders opposed O’Malley. In Connecticut too, legislation rode against the tide of public opinion. Of course, very few Americans suggest every homicide should result in the death penalty. However, public opinion shows that a great majority of Americans want the reserved right for the state to use capital punishment, and to exercise this right in the most egregious and heinous acts of crime.
After touching upon actual public opinion, it is necessary to examine the rational arguments in support of capital punishment. First and foremost, the death penalty acts as the ultimate retribution for the victim and his or her family and friends. In many cases, capital punishment provides the only form of closure and a peace of mind as it disconnects the victim's peers from the murderer. The pain and difficulty of living with a lost loved one will still exist. Yet, a sorrowful family will not be forced to live with the fact that the convicted murderer still resides on Earth. It is important to keep in mind that justice is both penal in punishment as well as retributive to the victim.
In addition to being a retributive institution, capital punishment acts as a deterrence measure. Abolitionists disbelieve in the deterrence influence; however that is not to say that the influence does not exist nor can actually be seen due to our reluctance to use this judicial instrument.
All economists are in agreement that people respond to incentives. This highly consensual topic is applicable to the rule of law. Without capital punishment, there exists diminishing marginal returns in terms of yearly sentencing to imprisonment. There is no distinction in the deterrence effect of sentencing someone from 20 years or 30 years in prison. In such cases, criminals make this rational calculation, especially in financial Ponzi schemes, i.e. Bernie Madoff or Robert Allen Stanford. The crime will still likely happen even if the sentencing increases from 30 years to life imprisonment, or even to extreme sentences such as three consecutive life terms. However, if the death penalty is effectively used, deterrence becomes an influence.
The most commonly referred to study demonstrates a casually correlated indirect relationship between higher county execution rates and homicide rates. In the context of this study and the influence of incentives, Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker stated "the evidence of a variety of types — not simply quantitative evidence — has been enough to convince me that capital punishment does deter and is worth using for the worst sort of offences."
Besides the arguments of retribution and deterrence, many claim that a rational alternative is life imprisonment. After all, once the criminal is detained he or she is no longer able to harm society. However, if the goal is to separate the criminal from society, capital punishment would provide a literally guaranteed rate of success.
Many thorough investigations have been done on the existence of prison gangs and their connection to continual crime. In 1983, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy conducted an examination of all state prison systems. The final report cited 33 agencies confirming the absolute presence of prison gangs. In recent years, it has been reported that prison gangs have been behind 50% or more of all murder crimes within state prisons.
Aside from prison homicides, criminal activity has been seen throughout history to extend outside of prison life. The Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood of California are supposedly the largest drug trafficking organizations spreading throughout regions while operating within prison.
The above examples point to the fact that in many cases, there is no separation from imprisoned criminals and society. To further add to this point, prison homicides have increased in the past year from 39 to 55, or a 44% increase. Without capital punishment, imprisoned criminals are indirectly granted a license to kill, threatening prisoners as well as guards who protect civil society from lawlessness.
To conclude part one, I examined support of capital punishment not just for the United States but for the Free world. I began by shedding light on actual public support for the death penalty. I then examined the reasons for capital punishment in terms of retribution, deterrence, and separating the murderer from society. Thus, the importance of capital punishment is a just institution which promotes freedom while protecting civil society. Expect part two soon.