Capital punishment is a method used since the earliest societies with the hopes of crime deterrence. Historical records show it even dates back to ancient primitive tribes who resorted to taking the lives of those who commit crimes as a means of punishing wrongdoers. Murder often warrants this ultimate form of punishment. “A life for a life” or “an eye for an eye” are basic concepts used when dealing with crime since the start of recorded history.
It is no secret the death penalty affects different groups of people disproportionately. An estimated 4-5% of people on death row are innocent; if you take that statistic literally, that means in 2020, around 131 people were placed on death row for a crime they did not commit.
People of colour receive the death penalty as a sentence at a disproportionately high rate, as they account for 43% of executions since 1976; in 2020, they accounted for 55%. According to the Criminal Justice Project of the NAACP, out of the 2,620 (2020) people who were on death row, 1441 of them were people of colour. This proves there is a blatant prejudice in the application of the death penalty, and this adds to the growing evidence for the racial bias which continues to plague our society, particularly within the criminal justice system. The existence of implicit racial bias among some law enforcement officers, witnesses, jurors, and others allows harsher punishments to be imposed on minorities, even without legal sanction or intention. Although these prejudices are hard to uproot, the unfair application of the death penalty could be halted by eliminating that sentencing option.
Myth-Busting – A common misconception leading the masses to consider the death penalty an appropriate, impactful and successful means of punishment, is the belief it deters people from committing crimes. There is, however, no credible evidence proving the death penalty deters crime more effectively than long-term imprisonment. States which carry out the death penalty laws do not have lower crime rates or murder rates than states which don’t. “The DPIC and the Times found that during the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty has been 48 percent to 101 percent higher than in states without the death penalty. This study also found 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.” Death penalty laws falsely convince the public that governments have taken effective measures towards combatting crime and homicide. In reality, such laws do nothing to protect communities from the acts of criminals.
The fallacy that certain forms of execution are ‘humane’ allows society to feel more comfortable in reinforcing the argument that prisons are simply places for revenge and punishment rather than rehabilitation. Any and all forms of execution are inhumane, even the lethal injection, which is often touted as somehow more humane (ostensibly, it appears less grotesque and barbaric than many other forms of execution namely beheading, electrocution, gassing and hanging). Nevertheless, the search for a “humane” way to kill people should be recognized for what it truly is – an attempt to make executions more palatable to those in whose name they are being carried out for and to make the governments which carry out the executions appear less like killers themselves. The South African law professor Jan van Rooyen states “[The death penalty] is a cheap way for politically inclined people to pretend to their fearful constituencies that something is being done to combat crime.”
When forming an opinion on the death penalty, whether it’s in support of it or not, it is important to remember that every day, men, women, even children, await execution on death row, guilty or innocent, their lives claimed by justice systems which value and hierarchize retribution over rehabilitation.