The Death Penalty in the 21st Century

After a sixteen-year hiatus, the Trump Administration announced that the Federal government will resume executions in late 2019 and early 2020, reinvigorating the public and political discourse around capital punishment. Support for the decision is mixed, but a few things are clear.

Source: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Flickr
Source: DPIC, “State by State”

Moral Arguments

Perhaps the loudest arguments about the death penalty deal with its morality or lack thereof. Such perspectives are common. According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, the most common reason given for why supporters favor the death penalty is “An eye for an eye/They took a life/Fits the crime.” Other moral arguments are also high on the list: “They deserve it” or “Fair punishment” or “Serve justice.”

For those who indicated support for the death penalty, asked: “Why do you favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?” (Source: Gallup, “Death Penalty”)
For those who indicated opposition to the death penalty, asked: “Why do you oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?” (Source: Gallup, “Death Penalty”)

Effects on Crime Rates

A common issue in the death penalty debate is whether or not it deters other would-be offenders. That is, others who would otherwise consider committing a murder will be deterred because of the possibility of a death sentence. The flipside of deterrence is brutalization, or the idea that capital punishment actually increases violence by devaluing human life.

Source: DPIC, Murder Rates

Racial Bias

Capital punishment, like virtually every element of the criminal legal system, has clear racial undertones. Since 2000, just over one-third of those executed were black.

Includes cases from Jan. 1, 2000 through May 31, 2019 (Source: DPIC: “Race and the Death Penalty by the Numbers”)
Includes cases from Jan. 1, 2000 through May 31, 2019 (Source: DPIC: “Race and the Death Penalty by the Numbers”)

Economic Costs

A key argument made by supporters of capital punishment is that it saves the money we’d otherwise spend on incarceration. However, as practiced today, the death penalty is, unquestionably, much more expensive than incarceration.

Innocence and the Death Penalty

Why not speed up the time to execution, which hovers around fifteen years?

The Death Penalty Today

The Trump Administration’s decision to resume executions, while supported by some members of the public, has drawn ire elsewhere. There are myriad legal issues, questions around the method of lethal injection, critiques from religious groups.

Author, professor. Writing about law, justice, politics, culture. Books: Exonerated (tinyurl.com/y4jfqsaj) & When Justice Fails (tinyurl.com/yyen4ggf).

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