By James Boggs
Friday, Oct. 10, was the 12th World Day Against the Death Penalty, a day in which death penalty abolitionists across the globe organize protests against what is increasingly being seen as a barbaric punishment.
This year, the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty focused on the death penalty as it applies to the mentally ill, tag lining their campaign with, “Care. Don’t Kill.”
The campaign brings up legitimate points, arguing that “mental health is a critical factor to consider at every stage of the death penalty process, from before a person commits a crime through the government’s execution of the convicted person, and even post-execution, as the death penalty affects the mental health of the families concerned.”
The coalition has been pushing hard to abolish the death penalty around the globe, and is particularly interested in obtaining a U.N. declaration on human rights abolishing the death penalty.
The cause is undoubtedly well-intentioned, but what remains in doubt is the legitimacy of abolishing capital punishment.
Many proponents of the death penalty argue that, morally, the death penalty is the correct thing to do. They say true justice calls for the life of a murderer to be taken and that we have an obligation to see justice through — fairness calls for a penalty equal to the crime.
Refusal to exact a fair punishment is merely the cowardice of people more concerned with avoiding guilt than promoting justice.
Additionally, capital-punishment advocates propose several practical arguments for the continuation and expansion of capital punishment.
They claim that fear is an excellent tool to deter crime and argue that criminals will be less likely to commit crimes if they know that death awaits them.
They claim that a criminal put to death no longer has the opportunity to commit crimes, resulting in a recidivism rate of zero percent.
They claim that executions are far cheaper for the government than life imprisonment.
The moral arguments for and against the death penalty are difficult to nail down, but for the purposes of this article, it can be agreed that it is morally wrong to kill someone without purpose.
If this is the case, and it certainly is, then all that is needed to determine that the death penalty is morally wrong is to prove that putting prisoners to death is pointless.
The easiest supposed reason for the death penalty to dispel is that of vengeance. While it feels nice to murder a murderer, the act fails to reap a real reward.
No one feels happier after the punishment is dealt, experiencing instead only a relief from anger.
The main reason put forward for the death penalty, however, is that it is practical.
All of the practical arguments put forth by supporters of the death penalty are, in a way, correct.
Certainly, knowing the death penalty awaits the crime of murder will deter potential murderers.
If a criminal knows that, should he be caught, he would face the death penalty, he is much less likely to murder and will be more careful when committing other crimes not to kill.
It is equally true that a dead criminal cannot return to a life of crime, and therefore the world is, nominally, a safer place.
Yet fear is only an effective technique when repeatedly enforced.
In order to truly make criminals fear to murder, the death penalty would have to be applied to every convicted murder case, a step few would be willing to take.
Such drastic action would certainly cut down on murder, but it would also likely lead to the executions of many innocent victims.
Unlike a life sentence, which can be ended with exoneration, death is permanent.
Yet without this draconian enforcement, the punishment loses its effectiveness at preventing crime with fear.
Proponents’ last point, that execution is cheaper, has been seen to be not true. Though perhaps the cost of the execution alone would be less than a life term, prosecution costs must be taken into account.
During the little-over-a-decade that most death-row prisoners spend in jail, there are countless appeals and hearings, each of which costs four-to-six times more than a life-without-parole hearing.
So, unless we are willing to impose the death penalty for every murder, the penalty is useless as a deterrent, and unless we are willing to forgo appeals and skip straight to the execution, the death penalty doesn’t save money, either.
Without the practicality to justify the act, it loses any moral basis and becomes a clearly immoral act: killing without purpose.