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5 Arguments for the Death Penalty

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According to a 2012 poll, 62% of Americans support the death penalty. If you're part of that majority, you might support it for one or more of the reasons below.

1. "The death penalty is an effective deterrent."

This is the most common and reasonable argument in favor of capital punishment, and there's actually some evidence that the death penalty may be a deterrent to homicide. And it makes sense that it would be—nobody wants to die.

But it's a very expensive deterrent, so the question is not just whether the death penalty is a deterrent—it's whether the death penalty is the most efficient deterrent that can be purchased using the considerable funds and resources involved in its implementation. The answer to that question is almost certainly no. Traditional law enforcement agencies and community violence prevention programs have a much stronger track record vis-a-vis deterrence, and they remain underfunded due, in part, to the expense of the death penalty.

2. "The death penalty is cheaper than feeding a murderer for life."

Categorically false; the death penalty is actually far more expensive to administer than life imprisonment. The State of California could reduce expenses by $1 billion over the next five years by abolishing capital punishment and commuting death row sentences to life imprisonment without parole.

Why is the death penalty so expensive? Because of the lengthy appeals process—which still sends innocent people to death row on a fairly regular basis.

Even if we were fine with executing innocent people every now and then, the Supreme Court wouldn't be—the Court abolished the death penalty in 1972 due to arbitrary sentencing. Justice Potter Stewart wrote for the majority:
These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual ... [T]he Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments cannot tolerate the infliction of a sentence of death under legal systems that permit this unique penalty to be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed.
The Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 only after states reformed their legal statutes to better protect the rights of the accused. There's no way around it: capital punishment is extremely expensive, and will remain so for as long as the Supreme Court takes the Eighth Amendment seriously.

3. "Murderers deserve to die."

They might. They really might. But the government is an imperfect human institution, not an instrument of divine retribution—and it lacks the power, the mandate, and the competence to make sure that good is always proportionally rewarded and evil always proportionally punished.

4. "The Bible says 'an eye for an eye.'"

Christianity has not traditionally smiled on the death penalty. Jesus, who himself was sentenced to death and legally executed, had this to say (Matthew 5:38-48):
"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

"You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
What about the Hebrew Bible? Well, ancient rabbinic courts almost never enforced the death penalty due to the high standard of evidence required. The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which represents the majority of American Jews, has called for total abolition of the death penalty since 1959.

5. "Families deserve closure."

Families find closure in many different ways, and many families never find closure at all. In any case, surviving family members deserve more closure than the criminal justice system has the power to provide.

What most people really mean when they say "families deserve closure" is that families deserve vengeance. Many families do want vengeance, and this is certainly understandable, but we need—as a culture—to stop referring to vengeance as "closure."

If we were really worried about closure, we wouldn't just appropriate the grief of strangers to serve a policy objective—we would actively provide free long-term mental health care and other services to the families of murder victims. If we spent as much money helping survivors as we spend killing offenders, their material needs would be met for the rest of their lives. You can tell what our public officials really care about—and what they really don't care about—by looking at what they're willing to spend money on.
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