Essay:What's wrong with the death penalty system in the United States?

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Note: This is an original work by Dan Holmes, and is far from complete.

A Liberal Trend?

Despite the predictions of many that capital punishment would die in the United States following a general trend throughout much of the rest of the world, the majority of states still retain laws allowing for the death penalty, although the majority of executions now seem to occur in Texas.[1] This aforementioned trend against capital punishment is perhaps showing nonetheless, as fewer executions are taking place, and as fewer Americans support capital punishment, although as of 2005, 68% of Americans still support executing murderers.[2] While to an extent this may be due to increasing liberal attitudes, it is possible that another cause may be that the inefficiency of capital punishment in America leads people to turn against the system. A recent newspaper editorial in Pennsylvania, where some judges allow condemned prisoners a seemingly infinite amount of appeals, advocated abolishing capital punishment in the state because only three of the hundreds of inmates on the state's death row have actually been executed since the Supreme Court re-legalized capital punishment in 1976, all of whom voluntarily dropped their appeals.[3]

The Cost of a Broken System

It is undeniable that the system in many, if not most, states, is broken. Only 321 exeuctions took place in the United States from 2001 to 2005.[4] Even in Texas, which executes far more inmates than any other state, Ronald Chambers has managed to escape the lethal injection gurney for 31 years as of April 2007.[5] In California, which has over 64 times as many inmates on death row as have actually been executed (only ten inmates) since 1976, the Chief Justice of the State's Supreme Court had said that "it's literally true that the leading cause of death on death row is old age." [6] This is cost inefficient for the state prison system and for taxpayers. California is currently building a new death row to the cost of $265 million,[7] despite the fact that the state has had severe budget problems in the last few years. This project, which has attracted bipartisan criticism, only highlights part of the problem. The cost of housing prisoners and allowing the appeal process to take its time adds up. Dudley Sharp of Justice for All, an organization that supports the death penalty, concedes that a year on death row is more expensive than a year in prison for a murderer who is serving a life sentence, but demonstrates that a death row inmate who is executed after a six-year stay on death row would cost a state approximately $3.5 million less than if he were imprisoned for fifty years.[8]

Capital Punishment as Deterrence?

Due to the inefficiency of the death penalty in the United States that, quite frankly, makes it unlikely that any given condemned criminal in the United States will be executed any time soon, it is no surprise that studies have not shown that states with capital punishment have lower violent crime rates than those who do not. One study shows that the 12 states without the death penalty tend to have the lowest crime rates of all.[9] Although this study and graph may look convincing, many questions remain. First, most of these states are located in the northern United States, and a number of the states with the highest crime rates are located in the Deep South, so geographical and cultural factors certainly also affect the crime rate. Also, just because a state has capital punishment on the books does not mean that executions often occur there. Many states are "death penalty in name only", such as Kansas, which has not executed anybody since the 1960s. If criminals were swiftly executed with a greater frequency, and if these executions were publicized in the media, a real deterrent effect might take place. Since this has not happened, in my opinion, this study doesn't show the whole picture. A real deterrence effect might take hold if executions actually occurred.

Well, What About Innocence?

Perhaps the most popular argument against capital punishment in the United States today is that of innocence. Concerns over the risk of executing an innocent prisoner prompted former Illinois governor George Ryan to empty death row right before he left office.[10] The Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment, claims that 123 innocent people have been exonerated from death row since the 1973.[11] However, these numbers are disputed. Ward Campbell, former California Assistant Attorney General, claimed that the majority of these people were most likely not actually innocent (though it should be noted that about 20 fewer people were on the list at this time).[12] It should be noted, however, that many of the exonerated people were convicted before DNA testing became widespread. Now, in the 21st century, it should be easier in many cases to conclusively prove guilt or innocence. Therefore, the issue of innocence may not be as significant in the future should capital punishment remain in the United States.