The Threat of Death

The Threat of Death :

As the war on crime continues, two truths hold steady…eliminating all crime is impossible, and controlling it is a must. The main weapon used to control crime in this war is deterrence. The government's deterrent for committing murder is the death penalty. The fear of death will not deter every person who contemplates murder from doing it. Whether it is for religious reasons and the hope of salvation or something else, stopping some people is not possible. The intent is not to stop those people, but instead every other would-be killer. Capital Punishment has been in the national spotlight for many years and the center of the debate still remains whether it actually deters would be offenders. Does this age-old penalty for the ultimate sin achieve its goal? There are many lofty and rational arguments on both sides of this issue.

Advocates of the death penalty claim that the primary reason for this harsh punishment is that the fear of death discourages people from committing murder. The main ways in which they support this theory are…

The severity of the punishment

Various polls of citizens and prisoners

Two in particular studies

The most obvious deterring justification is the severity of punishment. This means, put simply, to punish for a crime in a way that the punishment outweighs the crime. If the punishment for robbing a bank is to spend one day in jail, then bank robbing would become a daily occurrence. On the same note, if there is a reward for a lost item of jewelry and the reward is less than the selling price for that jewelry, the finder has no reason to bring it back. On the other hand, if the reward exceeds the value of the jewelry, the new owner will bring it back very promptly. In the case of capital punishment, if a person wants someone dead badly enough and the punishment for murder is a short stay in prison, what will possibly keep that person from doing the unthinkable. If a person is afraid for their life, then the stakes for their actions are much higher, probably even too high for most people.

Many psychologists believe that these stakes do not even have to be in conscious thought for them to work. The theory is that a person's conscience weighs out many factors in all instances. While a would-be offender might be contemplating the deed, the death penalty imbeds itself into that person's sub conscience as a possible consequence of their actions, and thus the conscience of that person begins to tilt to one side.

Another argument for the side that says capital punishment deters is the majority opinion. New York, until recently, had been one of the few states left that had yet to employ a death penalty for murder. In a recent opinion-poll, fifty-seven percent of the respondents say that they believe that the death penalty deters other criminals from killing. As it turns out, the citizens of society are not the only ones that think the death penalty deters. The death-roll inmates also feel this way. Through voicing their opinions on how they feel and their actions (i.e., appeals, more appeals, etc.), they make it clear that losing their life scares them badly.

There are two main studies that the proponents of the death penalty refer to as proof of capital punishment's deterring qualities. The first such study is by New York University professor Isaac Ehrlich. Through Professor Ehrlich's research and studies of statistics that span sixty-six years, he concludes that each execution prevents around seven or eight people from committing murder. In 1985, an economist from the University of North Carolina by the name of Stephen K. Layson publishes a report that shows that every execution of a murderer deters eighteen would be murderers. While the numbers from these studies might seem minute compared to the large number of murders committed every day in the United States, the numbers become quite large when discussed in the terms of the nearly four thousand executions that occurred in this country over the last sixty-five years.

While advocates of the death penalty are putting forth extremely strong arguments that support the proposition that capital punishment prevents murders, opponents of the death penalty are putting forth arguments that are just as weighty saying that the death penalty does nothing of the kind. Atypical instances of murder, such as ones dealing with juvenile or mentally deficient offenders, statistics make up the bulk of the opponents' arguments against the deterring effects of capital punishment.

Most Americans believe that juveniles are exempt from capital punishment. This is not true. As of recently, over thirty people are on death row for crimes they committed before they turned eighteen. The opponents to the death penalty argue that juveniles do not have the moral responsibility to bring a deterrent effect to them. As Richard L. Worsnop writes in his article entitled Death Penalty Debate Centers on Retribution…

Peer pressure and family environment subject adolescents to enormous psychological and emotional stress. Adolescents respond to stressful situations by acting impulsively and without the mature judgment expected of adults. These characteristics are shared by all adolescents....Thus, the possibility of capital punishment is meaningless to juveniles and has no deterrent effect.

Mentally deficient offenders are in the same situation that juveniles are in. As many as 30 percent of the 2,300 prisoners on death row may be retarded or mentally impaired. For a person that does not know what is right or wrong or even more does not understand that he or she could face death for what he is doing, capital punishment is not very likely going to have a deterring effect.

Another situation that the opponents build their platform upon is in the case of offenders impaired by drugs or alcohol or in an emotional rage. If a person is not thinking straight, then chances are very good that they are not going to be dwelling on what the consequences of their actions might be. One simple instance could be a man goes down to the local bar, drinks a few beers, and gets in a fight and someone ends up dying. This situation classifies two different ways.

First, the man has alcohol in his system and is not in full control of his decision making processes. Second, because of the fight or flight response in his body, the emotional rush from adrenaline will overcome his rational thought. Capital punishment obviously does not deter this man in the least by the thought of ending up in an electric chair or taking a lethal injection. Another example of emotional rage might be when someone sees red. For instance, a man (or woman) comes home to find his spouse sleeping with another person. The man loses control, pulls a gun and shoots his spouse and her lover dead. The man is overcome with emotion and is very doubtfully contemplating the thought that he himself could face the same fate.

Statistics are on the side of the opponents to capital punishment. In the early 1960's, a study by Thorsten Sellin compares statistics of side-by-side states, one with the death penalty and one without. Sellin picks apart just about every detail he can find and concludes that there is no evidence to support the deterrent effect of the death penalty (Worsnop 398). Hans Zeisel, a law and sociology professor theorizes that "if executions deter murderers, those states that stopped executions in the late 1960's would have experienced a greater increase in the murder rate than those states that stopped executions decades ago."

Zeisel finds no sudden increase in the murder rate and concludes that the death penalty has no deterring value. Murders will continue, it seems, no matter what is done about it. The proponents of capital punishment say that this is true, but the deterring effects of the death penalty control it somewhat. Opponents to this say that the death penalty holds no deterring effect of any kind. They believe that capital punishment is just useless killing with no inherent value. This debate is likely to continue for years to come.

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