The Death Penalty Is an Objectively Bad Idea

Morality aside, capital punishment is expensive and unjust.

The death chamber at the Missouri Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Mo.

The death chamber at the Missouri Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Mo.

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Last month’s botched use of lethal injection in Oklahoma, which has states considering bringing back the electric chair and even firing squads, has reignited the debate over the morality of capital punishment. But let’s be honest with ourselves: The moral arguments have led us nowhere. Let’s put an end to the debate by passing a reasoned judgment to end state sponsored executions.

I would never suggest that moral and ethical dialogue has no place, especially in the case of capital punishment, but the moralism is fruitless on all sides. We can use more objective standards of evaluation, established on four criteria: 1) is the punishment swift and sure; 2) is it equitably distributed; 3) is it cost-effective; and 4) can we judge by the company we keep? Applying these standards gets everyone around the moral objection problem.

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Capital punishment is neither swift nor sure. Since the 1970s, coinciding with the rise of DNA testing, 144 persons on death row have been exonerated. These folks were tried and convicted by legal processes meant to provide certainty. We know today that the system is not only flawed, but that perhaps one in 10 people are wrongfully convicted of capital crimes at current conviction rates. Moreover, time spent on death row by the convicted has more than doubled over the last 30 years. According to the Department of Justice, time spent on death row jumped from seven years on average in 1986 to 12 years in 2006. By 2009, the average waiting time for all death row inmates was 14 years. In California, it can be as long as 20.

Moreover, the death penalty is not equitably distributed by state, race, ethnicity or gender. Capital punishment is distributed asymmetrically across the United States; 32 states have the death penalty, while 18 do not. In the states still employing the death penalty, the death row population is disproportionally non-white. Since 1976, the racial composition of those executed was as follows: black, 474, or 34 percent; Latino, 110, or 8 percent; and white, 771, 56 percent. The current national population by race on death row is: black, 1,285, 42 percent; Latino, 391, 13 percent; and white, 1,335, 43 percent, compared to the most recent U.S. census reporting, which shows whites at around 64 percent of the population, African-Americans at 12 percent and Hispanics at 16 percent. Finally, women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population, yet since 1903 only 53 women have been executed. Even a most heinous crime might not garner a capital conviction in the case of a woman, and the most executions of women have taken place in just two states: Texas and Oklahoma.

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The death penalty is not cost effective, either. The average cost per year nationally for a death row inmate is $90,000 more than those in life imprisonment, according to a Death Penalty Information Center study. According to estimates by those states with the death penalty and the Department of Justice, Tennessee's death row costs 48 percent more than high-security life imprisonment. Florida would save $51 million a year without death row. Oregon estimates at least 50 percent more is spent on death row inmates, and California has estimated $90 million dollars a year in extra cost. Most interesting, Texas spends about $2.3 million per death penalty case, three times the cost of keeping someone in the highest security single cell for 40 years.

Finally, let’s look at the company we keep. The top six countries in the world in executions in 2013 according to Amnesty International are: China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Somalia. A country consistently close to the United States, at between 30 and 40 executions each year, is Yemen. Approximately 58 countries in the world permit the death penalty, including Afghanistan, Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, Cuba, Kuwait, Uganda and Vietnam. But nearly 100 countries – including Australia, Canada, Mexico, Rwanda and most of Europe – have outlawed it. Does the United States of America really desire to be the fifth most energetic executioner in the world, along with China, Iran and Saudi Arabia? If Rwanda can outlaw the death penalty, is it not possible that the United States could follow suit? Would it not be honorable to join the company of other democratic nations like ourselves?

We spend a lot of energy and money grinding away at the merits of capital punishment. When the electric chair once again resurfaces as a humane and usual form of punishment, preferable to lethal injection, it is time to dispense with the moral grounds. Let’s just agree to be rid of capital punishment once and for all as the reasonable thing to do.