Due to its controversial nature, the death penalty is a hot-button issue in the United States. Given the choice between capital punishment and lifetime imprisonment, most countries in the world have done away with the former. America is one of 55 nations that still have the death penalty, and it is the only western nation in which such executions take place. Many people believe capital punishment is outdated and barbaric, but others feel it is a necessary part of an effective criminal justice system.
History of the death penalty in America
In colonial times, the death penalty was well established before America even declared independence from Britain. The first execution happened in 1630, and executions continued to occur throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The death penalty reached its peak in early twentieth-century America. Jurisdictions have seen a decline in the number of executions carried out each year, and the number of those executed has dropped dramatically in recent decades. Since the 1970s, 1,542 men and women have been executed.
Capital punishment methods
Capital punishment, or the death penalty, can be traced back to the ancient practice of putting people to death by decapitating them. The term capital stems from the Latin word for head, which is why executions often involve decapitation. The US has never considered beheading people as a legal form of execution; in the past, criminals have been executed by electrocution, shooting, hanging, gas, poison, and lethal injection. Today, lethal injection is the only legally sanctioned method of execution in the United States. Some states, however, still have provisions for death by other means.
The argument for the death penalty
Supporters of the death penalty argue that “an eye for an eye” is the ultimate punishment for people who commit the worst crimes — that the judgment can be considered fair if it truly matches the crime committed. They believe that retribution should not be confused with revenge and that it is necessary to maintain a fair criminal justice system. Many pro-death penalty advocates argue that capital punishment is an appropriate form of “moral punishment” that provides the victim’s loved ones with closure—with the most just outcome possible.
The argument against the death penalty
Those who oppose the death penalty argue that it violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. They say that killing is wrong and that the murder of the killer does not make for a just punishment. It’s illogical to punish someone for killing by killing him or her. One of the biggest arguments against the death penalty is that there is always a chance that an innocent person could be executed. Humans are imperfect, and some judges are morally conflicted, which means that while very few people will be wrongfully punished, an incorrect judgment is still possible.
Some people believe that life in prison is a harsher punishment than capital punishment. Prisoners have a lot of time to think about their crimes and see the damage they have inflicted. Also, prisoners are safer from the chance of being executed for a crime they did not commit. Critics of the death penalty believe that it is unfair to minorities and point out that 50% of inmates on death row are Black, even though Blacks make up only 13% of the population. There are compelling reasons for and against the death penalty, but it’s important to understand these different points of view before deciding for yourself.