The Death Penalty as a Deterrent Essay

The Death Penalty as a Deterrent

            The aforementioned topic has perpetually been fraught with controversy. It has attracted the attention of several groups, their area of focus ranging from religion, human rights and justice. The incomparable value attached to life forms the basis for the death penalty. The salient question this debate poses is, “Does the possibility of losing one’s life discourage person from engaging in serious crime?”

The tenets of justice and ethics insist that for every right, there is a corresponding duty. Granted that everyone has a right to life, they have a duty to protect it by protecting themselves and their property as well as respecting other people’s lives and their property. Following this train of thought, robbery with violence, homicide and other related crimes may warrant the death penalty. Declarations doing the rounds insist that God, being the author of life, is the only one who can take it away. There have been studies to show that non-death penalty states present lower homicide cases than death penalty states.  It is arguably the harshest punishment possible. The fact that it ends people’s existence as opposed to imprisoning them indicates the irrevocability of this penalty. The position taken in this discussion supports the death penalty as an effective deterrent and aims at ironing out the issues raised by those who oppose it.

            Protection is one of any government’s most fundamental duties. In places like New York, the coddling of hardened criminals led to alarmingly high levels of permeating the streets. As the wheels of justice slowly creaked, criminals were comfortable in the thought that swift, certain punishment was nothing more than a pipedream. The absence of an effective deterrent gave criminals the steel to perpetrate more serious crimes against humanity. Sticking to New York as a case in point, the rate of violent crime decreased within a year of the institution of the penalty. Allied to this was the restoration of the public’s confidence in the justice system. The sentiments of Janice Hunter, the mother of one of Nathaniel White’s murder victims, Adrien, capture this. She questions the fairness of having to visit the cemetery to be with her daughter while White’s mother visits her son in jail.  She goes on to state that with the reinstatement of the death penalty in the city of New York, ruthless killers of White’s caliber will meet execution as opposed to being freed from their incarceration for exhibiting good behavior.  At this juncture, the Arthur Shawcross case deserves a mention. A ruthless, serial killer, he was convicted of brutally raping and murdering two children. His sentence was sentenced to several years in jail, but was set free after serving 15 years. At the time the death penalty was deemed unconstitutional. He later perpetrated the murder of 11 people within a span of 21 months (Pataki, 1997). His sentence is appears merely as an inconvenience as opposed to a punishment. Most agreements feel the same way. According to a Harris Interactive poll done in 2008, 63% of the American public believed in the efficacy of the death penalty, with thirty percent opposing it (Harris Interactive Inc., 2008). It has given citizens a sense of freedom, as they are confident that they can freely conduct their businesses, their children can enjoy themselves in the playgrounds and all can walk to the departmental store without constantly looking over their shoulder. In his analysis, Ehrlich (1973) indicated that for every executed inmate, seven lives were spared based solely on the capacity of capital punishment as an effective deterrent. Follow up studies do not show any distinct variance from this.

As it is a very serious punishment, the death penalty is carefully drawn so that it ensures that it is applicable with respect to the most vicious murders. To ensure this, juries weigh a case’s facts in another separate sentencing stage. This follows the first conviction. The juries consider a defendant’s state of mind, background, character, mental capacity, proper criminal record and the degree of participation with respect to the crime. A thorough comparison of the facts with the evidence collected then follows. The question of reasonable doubt applies heavily and the verdict reached must be unanimous for capital punishment to be imposed.

            Those who take the religious and moral angle do not have the complete picture. It is true that all life is authored by God. However, does not all authority come from God too? Authority here covers parenthood, religious leaders, political leaders and the judicial system too. If by the authority vested in their office the lawmakers are convinced that the death penalty is an efficient and efficacious, are they wrong? If it was not for the mandate given to the justice system, there would be a warped sense of freedom where people would do as they pleased. This takes the argument back to the aspect of rights and duties discussed elsewhere in this paper. The groups terming capital punishment as barbarous, costly, unfair, unjustified and anachronistic (Bedau, 1997) miss the boat by the proverbial river. The arguments raised do not oppose the death penalty as a deterrent; au contraire, they paint how serious it is, thus supporting it. It seems that the heavier the terms used to disqualify it, the greater the effect it gives in terms of deterrence. St. Thomas Aquinas proffered that capital punishment potentially had the greatest capacity of rehabilitating inmates by focusing their minds on issues of responsibility, justice, eternity and life (Sharp, 2001). This type of sentence can actually lead to permanent, useful change, which allows one the chance to rejoin society and background among many other factors. These are very murky waters as there is no clear way of appraising rehabilitation. St. Thomas’s view applies to one-off cases, but the contemporary death penalty as discussed elsewhere in this paper takes into account background and history among other variables. Leaving the possibility of release to all and sundry may lead to another Shawcross case, a reality that society will never be prepared for.

            A few years ago, the New York Times run an article to illustrate the failure of the capital punishment to act as an effective deterrent. It showed that on average, murder rates were higher in states supporting the death penalty than in states in opposition to it. Making the said comparison does not present an effective case with respect to deterrence. Even though the veracity in the statistics may be unquestionable, certain variables were not brought to light. Firstly, the report tabled murder rates in states that traditionally have high homicide rates with those that traditionally record low homicide rates. What about the Washington’s and Detroit’s records? They are both non-death penalty areas but have the unenviable title of perennial leaders in violent crime and murder rates, marinating the status quo for over 30 years. It is difficult not to ask the question, “If capital punishment was introduced in non death penalties, would the rate of serious crimes subside?” In the period between 1966 and 1980, when executions of all types were banned the United States recorded a twofold increase in the number of murders. Since then, all increases and decreases in the number of murders have been a mere fraction of the stated change. This is a very strong indication of the correlation that exists between the remarkable rise in murder cases and the absence of executions. It is the kind of survey the public needs. On an international scale, non death penalty states like Mexico and South Africa lead in violent crime and murder rates worldwide while Sweden report very low rates. Death penalty areas like Louisiana and Rwanda record high rates whereas similar death penalty jurisdictions like Singapore and Japan have very low instances of such crimes. The reality that comes from the report is that a simple comparison of states offers little insight on the gist of the debate, which is deterrence (Sharp, 2005). The illustration is in effect a smokescreen.

Nobody is discussing the situation where several inmates on sentenced to death die of old age (van den Haag, 1986). If the number is extremely high, then the death penalty comes across as an ineffective deterrent as it is tantamount to a life sentence. There is no doubt that if it were strongly enforced, it would send very cold chills down the collective back of people planning violent crimes. In the final analysis, both as a deterrent and an avenue to permanent incapacitation, the death penalty warrants serious discussion and debate. However, due process must be followed to the letter and the subsequent action taken surely and swiftly. A fast-swelling list of death-row convicts with little action whittles down the efficacy of the system and with it, the people’s confidence.  The reality that one may lose their life is arguably the greatest deterrent that the justice system can envisage.

Works Cited:

Bedau, H. A., “The Case Against the Death Penalty” ACLU, 1997. Retrieved on            24th March, 2009, from

Pataki, G. E., “Death Penalty is a Deterrent”. USA Today, 17th March, 1997.        Retrieved on 24th March, 2009, from

Harris Interactive, “Over Three in Five Americans Believe in Death Penalty”, March 18th, 2004. Retrieved on 24th March, 2009, from               ad8631dcd3bb97904c6908a0c&epi_menuID=887566059a3aedb6efaaa9e            27a808a0c&epi_baseMenuID=384979e8cc48c441ef0130f5c6908a0c&nd            mViewId=news_view&newsLang=en&newsId=20080318005337

Sharp, D., “Death Penalty and Deterrence: Let’s be clear”. Justice Matters, 0104,          2005. Retrieved on March 24, 2009, from