One of the most controversial subjects in the field of criminal justice is the sanction of the death penalty. As of 2016, almost seventy percent of the world’s nations have abolished the practice, leaving the United States in the minority (Anderson, Lytle, & Schwadel, 2017). Once a widely used as a punishment for even minor offences such as theft, execution is now reserved exclusively for the crime of murder (Mays & Ruddell, 2015). From hanging, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and, most recently, the seemingly more humane lethal injection, the methods of ending a presumably guilty life have varied widely through time (Best, Denver, & Haas, 2008).
Just as the means by which offenders are killed have shifted throughout the years, attitudes towards the very practice of capital punishment itself have changed. While support for the death penalty in the United States has shifted over time, it has been declining since the 1960s (Mays & Ruddell, 2015). Despite this decline in favor, however, most Americans continue to support the death penalty, with an estimated support rate of around sixty-one percent (Anderson, Lytle, & Schwadel, 2017). There are a variety of demographical factors at play concerning support for capital punishment, including religion, political affiliation, and race (Anderson, Lytle, & Schwadel, 2017).
The 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia found that executions were being applied arbitrarily and with significant racial bias (Mays & Ruddell, 2015). The court ordered the states to correct their procedures and even halted executions until 1976 when Gregg v. Georgia decided that mechanisms had been developed to ensure that the death penalty was not implemented in a capricious manner (Mays & Ruddell, 2015). Research has shown that there is indeed a correlation between race and potential capital cases (Petersen, 2017). Not only are African American and Latino defendants more likely to receive the death penalty, but the punishment is less likely to be utilized if the victim was African American or Latino (Petersen, 2017). There is also research that demonstrates a lack of willingness to prosecute cases with am an African American or Latino victim (Petersen, 2017).
Similarly, support for the death penalty is more widely seen among White Americans than any other race (Anderson, Lytle, & Schwadel, 2017). In addition to race, political affiliation plays a role in supporting the death penalty, with the Republican party explicitly supporting the practice (Jones, 2018). In fact, of the four major political parties, Republicans are the only ones without an anti-capital punishment position. (Jones, 2018). Religiosity and religious affiliations also have their own role to play in how one feels about the death penalty. Studies demonstrate that those with a negative and fearful view of God were more likely to support the death penalty, while those who possess a positive image of God with values that favor compassion were less likely (Desmarais, Gregory, Holland, & Rade, 2016).
One of the most difficult and complex challenges regarding the death penalty is determining how effective a crime control method it truly is. Understanding public opinion regarding the utilization of execution is important, for it influences legislators when considering policy change as well as judges when interpreting the law (Anderson, Lytle, & Schwadel, 2017). All of the aforementioned demographical factors play a role in determining attitudes towards capital punishment, and can attest to the theoretical justifications for the sanction. If one believes in the death penalty, they are also likely to agree with at least one of the three primary motivations behind it, which are deterrence, incapacitation, and retribution (Mays & Ruddell, 2015).
The first justification for ending the life of a convicted murderer is that it will deter other citizens from committing the same crime. Essentially, fear of being sentenced to death as punishment will serve as a preventive measure. In particular, those with a Republican affiliation tend to subscribe to this reasoning (Jones, 2018). While there has been a shift within the party leading to an increase in death penalty opposition due to factors such as its incompatibility with limited government, fiscal responsibility, and promoting a culture of life, the party’s long history of advocating for policies that are “hard on crime” lends itself to a belief that the harsher the punishment, the less likely people will be to engage in activity that will subject them to it (Jones, 2018).
However, despite this seemingly logical argument for deterrence, much of the research on the subject suggests that the death penalty has little to no impact on homicide rates. Interestingly, some studies indicate the opposite; revealing a “brutalization effect” where increases in executions result in a higher rate of murders (Mays & Ruddell, 2015).
Further research reports that any deterrence effect that may occur as a result of executions is extremely negligible and does not last very long (Mays & Ruddell, 2015). Furthermore, many criminals do not believe they are ever going to be caught and made to face consequences for their actions. They may not be deterred by the prospect of the death penalty, for they are operating under the assumption that they will go free.
Most would agree that ending the life of a supposed murder would serve as appropriate incapacitation. Obviously, one cannot commit further acts of violence if they are no longer alive to do so. However, an argument for the alternative opinion of life without the possibility of parole can be made due to the fact that living out the remainder their life behind bars effectively incapacitates an offender (Mays & Ruddell, 2015). Escapes from maximum-security prisons are rare, and limited freedoms, near-constant surveillance, and preventative punishments work to protect the safety of other inmates as well as correctional staff (Mays & Ruddell, 2015).
Those who favor life in prison without the possibility of parole over the death penalty hold to the fact that, in the event of wrongful conviction, the inmate remains alive (Mays & Ruddell, 2015). While being appropriately incapacitated and prevented from causing harm to the public, they also retain the potential to be released if their innocence were to be revealed. Regardless of one’s stance on capital punishment, the fact remains that 311 prison inmates have been proven wrongfully incarcerated up until 2013, and 142 death row inmates have been exonerated (Mays & Ruddell, 2015).
Perhaps the most common justification for the death penalty, the argument for retribution asserts that if one is willing to take the life of another, their life is then forfeit. In other words, retribution contends that killers simply deserve to die. This “eye for an eye” way of thinking is reflected in many religious teachings, leading those aligned with specific religious beliefs to hold to the idea that the punishment should be proportionate to the crime (Desmarais et al., 2016). As previously discussed, those with a negative or avenging view of God tend to be supportive of capital punishment (Desmarais et al., 2016). Within Judeo-Christian traditions, execution as a result of a crime was used historically in accordance with Mosaic, Judaic, and Roman law (Desmarais et al., 2016).
Statements regarding the death penalty are found in Jewish and Christian scriptures, specifically Genesis 9:5–6 as well as Exodus 21:23–25, in which God states that punishments should suit the crime (Desmarais et al., 2016). Going beyond Christian and Jewish traditions, the Islamic faith allows for use of execution in accordance with the Koran, while capital punishment is practiced in many nations where Islam is the official religion (Desmarais et al., 2016). In addition, while Buddhists have historically been opposed to the death penalty, many nations where Buddhism is the national religion, such as Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, have retained the practice (Desmarais et al., 2016).
Just as some religious teachings possess rhetoric that is favorable to capital punishment, there are certain foundational attitudes that are oppositional. Research has revealed that those who deem God a benevolent being and assert beliefs surrounding mercy and kindness possess contrary opinions to the death penalty (Desmarais, 2017). For example, Judeo-Christian teachings emphasize the fundamental principle of right to life and that forgiveness and compassion are more important that retribution or punishment (Desmarais et al., 2017). The idea that compassion supersedes punishment is seen throughout Jewish and Christian scriptures where God demonstrates mercy and forgiveness towards murders (figures such as Cain, Moses, and David) rather than condemning them to death (Desmarais et al., 2017).
Researchers and scholars argue that scriptures and teachings traditionally used to support capital punishment (Genesis 9:5–6 and Exodus 21:23–25) are actually able to be interpreted to adhere to the overall Biblical narrative of mercy, forgiveness of sin, and redemption (Desmarais et al., 2017). Furthermore, the Catholic Church has revised its position on the death penalty, now against its use in consistency with other Christian faiths (Desmarais et al., 2017). Again exploring the views of faiths other than Judeo-Christian, both Buddhism and Islam emphasize similar teachings of repentance, forgiveness, compassion, and the sanctity of human life (Desmarais et al., 2017).
Though support for the death penalty has remained relatively constant over the past few decades, favor has begun to decline in recent years. In fact, executions themselves have been declining at a substantial rate, with the length of time inmates spend incarcerated prior to their sanctioned deaths increasing from 61 months in 2000 to 198 months in 2011 (Mays & Ruddell, 2015). Despite the time it takes to actually execute an offender after sentencing and the fact that many will die on death row, capital punishment proponents remain steadfast in their position.
The factors that most often result in a pro-capital punishment mindset are largely demographical, in that religious and political affiliations as well as race play a major role in the formation of opinions. While it is vital that public opinion regarding the death penalty is understood, it is also important that different groups of Americans are studied in order to determine where the differences lies. Not only will this assist legislators in making laws and judges in passing sentences, but it will also benefit politicians hoping to gain the favor of their constituents with their position on crime and punishment. Capital punishment will continue to be a controversial issue, with many complex facets and often contradictory opinions.
While capital punishment is one of the most hotly contested issues with passionate rhetoric stemming from both supporters and abolitionists, changes in collective mood remain subject to current events, and a major political shift or outrageous criminal event such as a mass shooting or terrorist attack may change the tides of public opinion (Mays & Ruddell, 2015).