The argument around the death penalty strongly divides people onto two sides. It has been up for debate state by state in the U.S., varying each year. As of now, 28 states still have the death penalty. Worldwide, the issue becomes even more nuanced. More than just if it is morally right to kill someone, capital punishment creates multiple ethical and logical dilemmas. But in the U.S., one big problem with the death penalty is rarely talked about: racism.
Capital punishment AKA the death penalty
Before explaining both sides of the issue, it is important to understand what the death penalty is and why it is ever used. Capital punishment, or the death penalty, is the harshest sentence when someone commits a certain kind of crime. The types of valid crime are still up for debate, but as of now all members on death row committed murder (the death penalty can no longer be used for non-homicidal rapes, but can still be used for crimes against the government). The most common method of execution is lethal injection, but there are other options in some states.
It seems like we constantly hear about horrible things on the news, including many murders, but we don’t often hear about murderers being executed. This is because capital punishment is only used in the absolutely worst cases, which can be subjective. The subjectivity of who deserves the death penalty becomes a bigger issue when looking at racial statistics, which we will go into later.
Worldwide, over 70% of all countries have abolished the death penalty. This leaves the U.S. in the minority, even though Americans often think they are more humane than other countries. But is it not a black and white situation for many, especially for those who do not know about its unfairness.
Why some believe it’s necessary
- It may be more ethical to kill someone than lock them up for life.
- An ethical argument in which there is no right or wrong. If we ran by this rule, then we should allow the person charged to decide which option they want. The big problem with thinking this way is that there could be innocent people on death row that might prove their innocence given more time. Since 1973, 165 people on death row were later found innocent and released.
- The people on death row deserve this punishment.
- Again, this argument depends on a person’s beliefs. Some see this as justified: every action has a reaction. Others may see it as too hostile and inhumane.
- It’s less expensive to execute people than keep them locked up for their whole lives.
- This actually isn’t true and is one of the reasons to be against the death penalty.
- It is a deterrent for crimes.
- Again, this has been proven false, as I will discuss in the next section.
Why the rest disagree
- Murdering a murderer is immoral.
- Another ethical argument, as some believe that wanting to murder someone puts them on the same level as the murderer.
- It is not a deterrent for crimes.
- Studies have shown that it is not a deterrent for crime, yet there are many variables in play when studying this. People already have high stakes when committing a horrible crime, so adding the possibility of the death penalty seems unlikely to persuade a murderer.
- The death penalty does not console victims.
- Only 2.5% of victims or co-victims reported feeling closure due to the death penalty. Instead, it often creates negative effects.
- It is more expensive.
- Surprisingly, implementing capital punishment is more expensive than not having it. In many states, the research found that the death penalty is much more expensive than imprisonment for life. A lot of the expenses are due to the more costly trials. In Texas, the price for a death penalty case is $2.3 million, almost three times more expensive than life in prison. It costs Florida $51 million per year to use the death penalty instead of putting people in prison for life.
Another aspect: the racism
Due to the Black Lives Matter movement becoming more prominent again lately, more people are focusing on how incarceration and the prison system are racist. It makes sense that parts of incarceration would be racist too, and the death penalty is a clear indicator of it. Not only are those who are Black more likely to be sentenced with the death penalty, but also those whose victims are white. Only 21 white defendants have been executed for killing a Black victim, while 296 Black defendants have been executed for killing a white victim.
This is not because more Black people kill white people, but because of the racism inside and out of the system. In Washington, jurors are three times more likely to suggest the death penalty for a Black defendant than a white defendant, even if the crimes are similar. A study in Louisiana found that a defendant is 97% more likely to be sentenced with the death penalty if their victim is white. In 96% of states with the death penalty and race reviews, there was a pattern of race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination.
Even if capital punishment is deserved, Black people should not have a higher chance of being executed than white people who commit the same crime. The death penalty should not exist in the U.S. based on this injustice alone.
What can I do?
Issues like incarceration, the death penalty, and racism are very heavy and have no easy fixes. But that does not mean we should do nothing. First, do more research about the three topics and how they are intertwined. It can start with a simple Google search of “institutional racism,” or watching the documentary 13th on Netflix. The next step is to check yourself and see how you can be better. This means watching your thoughts and actions that might be racist. During this, talk to others. This could be teaching others that might not know what you do or listening to those who have experienced racism and oppression. And remember, growth never stops. Continue to try to better the world in the ways that you can, from voting to having a discussion with a racist family member.
To continue learning about the death penalty, click on the resources below I used for this article: