In the city of New Orleans, murder is an epidemic; one cannot watch a local news program or read a newspaper without hearing of another murder. The deaths and their attendant toll on families and loved ones are devastating, but the impact is not limited to the victims. Instead, this epidemic of murder impacts the entire community; the murders demonstrate a lack of respect for the value of human life, as well as a callous disregard for the rule of law. The justice system appears to be broken, and it appears that people commit murder without considering the morality of their actions or feeling the real-life consequences to them if they are caught. The disregard for the law can be understood when placed in context; even murderers who are caught, prosecuted, and convicted of their crimes tend to serve marginal sentences before being returned to the community to potentially reoffend. This is not fair to other citizens, who are responsible for the taxes that support violent offenders, only to have to face danger from them once they are released. Instead, permanent punishment options must be considered. The death penalty provides an effective means to permanently deal with violent offenders without offending the notions of cruel and unusual punishment that underlie the American criminal justice system.
Perhaps the primary legal objection to the death penalty is that it offends the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment contained in the Eighth Amendment. This argument is not valid; at the time that the Constitution was written, the death penalty was an acceptable form of punishment. Furthermore, while certain types of executions have been deemed to violate the Eighth Amendment, the actual sentence of death has not (CNN Library, pp.1-4). In fact, if one examines the historical context of the development of the death penalty, it becomes even more difficult to suggest that the death penalty violates ethical norms. "In the historic past, all countries had capital punishment, though they used it to varying degrees" (Greenberg and West, p.296). In other words, the death penalty has developed in all societies at some point in time, and has not been considered a taboo. This suggests that the death penalty is not inherently immoral, but, instead, has historically been viewed as an appropriate way to ensure retribution for certain criminal offenses. Societal standards have evolved since that time, allowing for certain reasonable restrictions on the death penalty. For example, societal standards have evolved to a point where it is considered taboo to execute members of certain groups, such as the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, and juveniles. In addition, the death penalty was previously applicable in non-murder cases, but has been determined to only be proportional when a criminal has committed a murder. These restrictions have limited the scope of the death penalty in America. However, while society has embraced certain restrictions on the death penalty, is important to keep in mind that "an overwhelming majority of Americans support a death penalty for those -- and only those -- who deserve to die" (Blecker, p.1). In fact, this support has actually increased in the time period since the 1960s (Ellsworth and Gross, p.19).
One of the primary non-legal objections to the death penalty is that it violates religious principles of forgiveness. For example, they may cite the fact that God did not condemn Cain to death for the crime as evidence that people should not be put to death for murder. However, the story actually supports the idea that there are different grades of homicide; God himself threatens to severely punish anyone who harms Cain:
Cain's relief at being marked shows that he and God believed that the threat of death -- and sometimes only the threat of a ferocious kind of death -- could deter murder. Ironically, then, the first murderer heard the first death penalty pronounced not as punishment for, but as protection from, the consequences of his own conduct (Blecker, p.3).
Three of the major world religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam look to the same source material for ethical guidance, suggesting that religious objections to the death penalty are unfounded; the death penalty is a primary punishment in all three Abrahamic religions. This is an important factor because the United States, while not established on a religious foundation, has drawn upon Judeo-Christian derived moral and ethical principles in the establishment of its current and historical criminal justice systems. Furthermore, the notion that the death penalty offends morality often overlooks that some people find the failure to impose the death penalty to be deeply immoral. Instead, they suggest that the death penalty recognizes human dignity, not only be avenging those who have been murdered, but also by recognizing the free will of those who have murdered (Fein, N.p.).
In fact, recognizing the value of the life taken is one of the primary reasons to support the death penalty. Many people who oppose the death penalty suggest that the death penalty is nothing more than state-sanctioned revenge, and that revenge has no place in a formal justice system. It is true that revenge does not have a place in a formal justice system; that is why justice is handled by an impartial third party rather than by the friends and family of victims. However, the death penalty is not revenge, it is retribution. Retribution ensures that someone is punished for misbehavior, and the goal of the punishment is to ensure that society continues to function in an orderly fashion. "Deserved punishment protects society morally by restoring this just order, making the wrongdoer pay a price equivalent to the harm he has done" (Budziszewski, N.p.). A society is not bloodthirsty for asking criminals to pay for a murder with their own lives; it is simply seeking a punishment that meets the level of the crime committed. Moreover, just as death is qualitatively, not quantitatively, different as a punishment for crime, the death penalty acknowledges that murder is qualitatively, not just quantitatively different than other crimes. Murder takes something from a victim and those who loved the victim that cannot be replaced and should be treated differently than other crimes. Therefore, the fact that the punishment of death is different from other available punishments is not an argument against the death penalty, but, instead, recognizes that murder, the only crime that can trigger a death sentence in the United States, is also fundamentally different from other crimes.
One of the more compelling reasons to advocate in favor of an efficient death penalty is the cost of incarceration in the United States. States are spending a tremendous amount on correction. "From 1987 to 2007, the amount that states spent on corrections increased 127%" (Hermes, p.1). The amount spent on corrections becomes increasingly problematic when one considers that money diverted from other needs, such as education. For example, in 2007, "for the first time, five states spend more on corrections than they do on higher education" (Hermes, p.1). Moreover, while death penalty cases can be very expensive, especially given that they generally include mandatory appeals to ensure that only the guilty are put to death, their expenses have been overstated by death penalty opponents. While the up-front costs for death penalty cases are significantly higher than the same cases tried as non-capital offenses, death-penalty advocates suggest that the long-term costs of the non-capital cases end up being much higher (Sharp, N.p.). What is important to keep in mind is that one cannot simply compare the cost of the state supporting a prisoner for life with the cost of a death penalty case. Instead, one has to consider the potential societal risk that attaches to every convicted murderer who is sentenced to life without parole or who is released from prison. The cost of reoffending and the impact that has on society has to be included in the financial decision-making process when considering whether the death penalty should be applied. While considering all of those numbers may not make the death penalty a less expensive option, factoring in those options does remove the assumption that the death penalty is necessarily more expensive than life without parole or releasing the suspect back into society would be.
One criticism of capital punishment is that the punishment is over-applied. However, the reality of capital punishment in the United States suggests that this is simply not true. There were 629 executions between 1976 and 2000. "In those same years, there were 482,000 homicides in America. Someone was executed for just 0.12% of those murders" (Keating, p.2). In other words, even in states that high execution rates, the death penalty is not the de facto sentence sought when a defendant is accused of murder. On the contrary, the death penalty seems to be reserved for those crimes considered the most heinous by prosecutors, reflecting the idea of proportionality in sentencing. In fact, not only are few people executed, but the people who commit the most horrific crimes may live the most…