Fifty-five percent of Americans support the death penalty, according to a 2017 Gallup poll. A survey the polling organization took two years later found that 56% of Americans support capital punishment for convicted murderers, down 4% from a similar poll taken in 2016. While the exact number of poll respondents in favor of the death penalty has fluctuated over the years, a slight majority of those surveyed continue to back capital punishment based on arguments ranging from religious dogma to the cost of covering a life prison sentence. Depending on one’s perspective, however, the death penalty may not actually represent justice for victims.
“The Death Penalty Is an Effective Deterrent”
This is probably the most common argument in favor of capital punishment, and there’s actually some evidence that the death penalty may be a deterrent to homicide, but it’s a very expensive deterrent. As such, the question is not just whether the death penalty prevents crime but whether capital punishment is the most economically efficient deterrent. The death penalty, after all, requires considerable funds and resources, making it extremely costly to implement. Moreover, 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.
“The Death Penalty is Cheaper Than Feeding a Murderer for Life”
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, independent studies in several states, including Oklahoma, reveal that capital punishment is actually far more expensive to administer than life imprisonment. This is due in part to the lengthy appeals process, which still sends innocent people to death row on a fairly regular basis.
In 1972, citing the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty 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, but only after states reformed their legal statutes to better protect the rights of the accused. As of 2019, 29 states continue to use capital punishment, while 21 prohibit the death penalty.
“Murderers Deserve to Die”
Many Americans share this view, while others oppose the death penalty no matter the crime committed. Death penalty opponents also note that the government is an imperfect human institution and not an instrument of divine retribution. Therefore, it lacks the power, the mandate, and the competence to make sure that good is always proportionally rewarded and evil always proportionally punished. In fact, organizations such as the Innocence Project exist solely to advocate for the wrongfully convicted, and some of the convicted felons it has represented have been on death row.
“The Bible Says ‘An Eye for an Eye'”
Actually, there is little support in the Bible for 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 the total abolition of the death penalty since 1959.
“Families Deserve Closure”
Families find closure in many different ways, and many never find closure at all. Regardless, “closure” is not a euphemism for vengeance, the desire for which is understandable from an emotional point of view but not from a legal perspective. Vengeance is not justice.
The friends and family of murder victims will live with that loss for the rest of their lives, with or without controversial policy objectives such as the death penalty. Providing and funding long-term mental health care and other services to the families of murder victims is one way to support them.