Capital F for Capital Punishment?

By: Anastasia Golovashkina

Only 52% of Americans believe that the death penalty is generally imposed “fairly,” while 59% believe that at least one person has been wrongly executed under the death penalty within the past five years. Though support for the death penalty has long been waning and is now at a 39-year low, 65% of Americans still support capital punishment.

The more pragmatic of capital punishment’s supporters argue that it saves taxpayers money. Circuit Court Judge Arthur L. Alarcón reports otherwise: “The additional cost of confining an inmate to death row, as compared to the maximum security prisons where those sentenced to life without possibility of parole ordinarily serve their sentences, is $90,000 per year per inmate.” In California, that accounts for $63.3 million of additional annual spending, with similar results in all other states that allow the death penalty.

Still others argue that the death penalty prevents violent crime. This, too, is false; states that allow capital punishment have a consistently higher murder rate than states that do not, the most recent statistic being an average of 25% more. In 2000, The New York Times used FBI data to show that “10 of the 12 states without capital punishment have homicide rates below the national average” while half of the states with the death penalty have homicide rates above it. In a state-by-state analysis, The Times also found that “during the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty has been 48% to 101% higher than in states without the death penalty.” The study concluded that “homicide rates had risen and fallen along roughly symmetrical paths in the states with and without the death penalty, suggesting to many experts that the threat of the death penalty rarely deters criminals.”

Finally, while most Americans who support the death penalty do so out of a belief that victims’ families deserve fair retribution for their losses, there exist a number of prominent organizations – most notably Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) – made up of thousands of murder victims’ relatives who, as these titles suggest, oppose capital punishment. The assumption that all victims’ families support the death penalty is wrong.

Many approach the retribution argument from a different perspective, arguing that violent criminals deserve capital punishment. This sentiment stems from perhaps the most flawed premises of all, as an estimated 139 people in 26 states have been released from death row as the emergence of new evidence proved their innocence. (Even this statistic, however, is likely to understate the problem of false positives, since investigations are almost never continued past the inmate’s execution.) Given this information, we realize that the question isn’t about whether dangerous criminals “deserve it.” The real question centers on those 139+ innocent convicts – do they “deserve it,” too?

Since 2007, the United Nations has been calling for a worldwide ban on executions and hopes to one day abolish capital punishment in its entirety. It’s our responsibility to reaffirm our Eight Amendment freedoms from “cruel and unusual punishments” by ending the death penalty in every state. Statistics show that life in prison is a much more humane and affordable alternative to the death penalty – and the majority of countries, including Canada, Australia, Russia, and all members of the European Union agree.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a first-year Economics major at the University of Chicago.

This blog post is an official entry for the Law Blogger’s Scholarship, sponsored by The Law Office of Joshua Pond,