Saturday, September 8, 2007

Capital Punishment in America . . . will it always be around?

The death penalty is not a new issue. In 1972, the Supreme Court of the United States revoked the death penalty declaring it unconstitutional because it violated the Eighth Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment (see Furman v Georgia, 408 U.S. 238). The ban was short lived. In 1976, a separate set of justices reversed the earlier court’s ruling and handed the issue back to the states (see Gregg v Georgia, 428 U.S. 153). The Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is not a per se violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Ever since, the states have handled the issue on their own. Twelve states have no death penalty. Of the remaining 38, some employ it frequently, while others never do. Texas is by far the leader; it has executed 401 people since 1976.

A life sentence without the possibility of parole has changed the way many Americans feel about the death penalty. In the past, juries worried that a life sentence would allow a murderer to be free in a decade or two to kill again. Now that “life without parole” really means that a person may never go free, people are more comfortable with that option.

Even the arguments for and against capital punishment have changed. The cost of housing prisoners was always used; however, it is now more expensive to have someone executed than it is to guard and feed him for the rest of his life. That is contemptible to most Americans.

Capital punishment abolitionists argue that juries make mistakes. If someone is given a life sentence and it turns out the wrong man was convicted, he could be set free and compensated. If he were executed, then it is too late.

Deterrence isn’t the answer either. The chance of being executed in the United States is so low that most feel it is not a significant deterrent. Many other factors influence murder rates—unemployment, the probability of getting caught, the availability of guns.

Capital punishment in the United States will probably always be a hot button issue and more than likely will always be an available option. States may use it less frequently, but as long as emotional pleas for justice from victim's families continue, Americans will want to have it as a choice.

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