Should the United States Stop Using the Death Penalty?

april 8, 2014

Room for Debate recently asked if the death penalty is dying in the United States, and if that is a bad thing. After all, 18 states already outlaw capital punishment, with New Hampshire possibly becoming the 19th. Last year the United States executed 39 people, down from its post-1976 peak of 98 executions in 1999.

Should the United States stop using the death penalty?

In “Rare and Decreasing,” Richard Dieter writes about why he thinks the death penalty “is becoming largely irrelevant in American society and may not last another 10 years.”

When the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether a punishment is cruel and unusual, they examine it in terms of current standards of decency. The Court looks to the number of states using the punishment, and whether its use is frequent or declining. In 2005, for example, the court struck down the death penalty for juvenile offenders because most states did not allow it, and its use was rare and decreasing even where it was allowed.

The court is likely to apply the same analysis to the death penalty itself. Eighteen states have already ended capital punishment and the governors of three other states have halted executions. New Hampshire and Delaware may soon be added to the list of abolition states. Moreover, the use of the death penalty in states that retain it is decreasing. If the death penalty is being used by only a small number of states, and if there is a clear national trend away from capital punishment, the Supreme Court could find that it has become a cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

On the other hand, Robert Blecker writes in “Punishment Needs to Be Punishment,” that the death penalty should continue to be an option for the worst offenders:

When pollsters seek the appropriate punishment for the worst of the worst – a man who rapes and tortures a child, a serial killer, a depraved mass murderer such as Timothy McVeigh, etc. – overwhelmingly the people choose death as deserved. Many who prefer life without parole wrongly imagine that sadistic or callous killers experience prison as a daily punishment worse than death. My thousands of hours inside maximum-security prisons these past 30 years contradict this: Inside prison, prisoners and officers alike reject punishment. “What a man did out there is none of my business. I only care how he behaves inside,” they declare. Inside prison, too often those who deserve it least suffer most. Vicious murderers who prey on the helpless and vulnerable, once captured, become perfectly well behaved “inmates.” Posing no future threat, they get transferred from maximum- to medium-security prisons where they can visit, hang out, watch sports and movies on color TV, play basketball and softball or read a good book, mostly all day every day.

If the U.S. Supreme Court wants to promote human dignity, if it really reflects the will of the people and not their leaders, the justices will constitutionally continue the punishment of death, allowing us to denounce our worst predators and at least declare our commitment to — although we rarely deliver — real justice.

Students: Read the entire Opinion piece, then tell us …

— Should the United States stop using the death penalty? Why?

— Do you have concerns about the fair application of the death penalty, or about the possibility of the criminal justice system executing an innocent person? Do you think capital punishment is “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore prohibited by the Constitution?

— Do you think the death penalty serves a purpose, like deterring crime, providing relief for victims’ families or imparting “real justice?”

— Do you agree with Mr. Dieter that the death penalty is becoming “irrelevant” and “may not last another 10 years?”


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