Death Penalty: Social Attitudes and Modern Alternatives
The issue of the death penalty raises deep emotions on all sides of the debate. Many feel that the death penalty no longer holds value as a tool for society to prevent heinous crimes. In the past, the prevalence of the death penalty created a measure of deterrence on social behaviors. However, in modern life, there is no longer is a measurable deterrence felt in the public consciousness. Like a magnet which is too far from a piece of iron to draw the metal toward it, the distance between the commission of the crime and a death penalty execution has diminished deterrence in all but theoretical discussions.
Many feel that the death penalty contains a measure of justice, and that the criminals 'deserve' to die, as well as society 'deserves' to see justice through death of the convicted. Those who present this argument also do so on mainly theoretical terms. Often those who espouse the death penalty on the basis of justice have their philosophical roots in religious traditions, and seek to use sacred texts as the basis of their position. However, in today's world, a significant portion of society neither sees themselves as strictly adhering to a particular religious group. Religion is still highly honored in the nation, but religious practices tend to be tempered by social pressures rather than challenge them. As a result, the religious argument toward the death penalty is finding fewer supporters.
Modern and post modern culture questions whether or not we, as a people, want to be known as a people to have to seek retribution in order to feel good about our own society. In the case of the death penalty, many in our society have difficulty personally identifying with a society which cannot work toward rehabilitation of criminals. Since modern social justice theory which arose in the early 20th century, individuals in and out of the criminal justice system have worked to develop a system which dealt with the root causes of crime, and moved people toward rehabilitation, rather than settling for setting punishment, and even retribution as a socially acceptable goal.
Finally, issues of cost, and the rising demands on our prison system to house, feed, and care for a prison population which is exploding in numbers has created economic forces. These economic issues have forces those in the criminal justice system to consider the costs and benefits of incarceration.
This paper will evaluate a number of modern factors regarding the death penalty debate. First, we will examine social and psychological theories regarding crime. The theories behind the crime serve as a foundation because if the criminal justice system is to correct, or rehabilitate those who are incarcerated, they must have an accurate diagnosis of the problem. In this section, we will consider some of the arguments for the death penalty, and some against.
Secondly, we will examine the issue of deterrence. Deterrence is measured in two different aspects. The first is retribution - society seeks justice by exacting a punishment from the criminal. The second is prevention - society hopes to diminish the occurrence of the capital crimes by attaching a high cost to the actions. The issue of deterrence revolves around influencing the person to change a behavioral choice because a high personal cost will be applied to him. In this case, the cost is the lost of his or her own life.
Finally, we will examine alternate theories. Until it becomes socially acceptable to drop capital criminals off on a deserted island, much like the hit television show Survivor without the cameras, and allow them to fend for themselves for the rest of their natural lives, society must have a plan for addressing criminal behaviors. The theory of restorative justice is one such theory which insists that the criminal himself needs to repay the individual and the society for his crime. Restorative Justice (RJ) is built on the foundation of repentance, and restitution, which are also religious ethics. By engaging the individual who is accused of the crime in restitution for his or her actions, RJ believes that the person and society as a whole can move toward healing, and restoration.
Social Theory Supporting, and Opposing the Death Penalty
According to Bedau (1964) there are three current social theories which support the idea of death penalty. The primary support for the death penalty tends to come from law enforcement groups, i.e.: the police and from prosecutors. Their position is built on the belief that society has a right to exact retribution from law breakers. They believe that the best way to do this with murderers and other vicious criminals is through capital punishment. These groups tend to defend the view that the death penalty is the only effective deterrent for capital and serious crimes.
A secondary line of support for the death penalty arises from some theologians. Whereas police officers rely mainly on their personal experiences with criminals to support their claims, these theologians rest their case mainly on Biblical interpretation, and religious dogma. Reverend Jacob Vellenga's representative of this outlook.
Capital punishment is a controversial issue upon which good people are divided, both having high motives in their respective convictions. But capital punishment should not be classified with social evils like segregation, racketeering, liquor traffic, and gambling. These evils are clearly antisocial, while capital punishment is a matter of jurisprudence established for the common good and benefit of society. Those favoring capital punishment are not to be stigmatized as heartless, vengeful, and lacking in mercy, but are to be respected as advocating that which is the best for society as a whole. When we stand for the common good, we must of necessity be strongly opposed to that behavior which is contrary to the common good. From time immemorial the conviction of good society has been that life is sacred, and he who violates the sacredness of life through murder must pay the supreme penalty. This ancient belief is well expressed in Scripture: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image" (Gen. 9:5-6, RSV). Life is sacred. He who violates the law must pay the supreme penalty, just because life is sacred. Life is sacred since God made man in His image. There is a distinction here between murder and penalty." (Vellenga, 1959)
Only a century ago, when our nation was considerably more religious in practice and social paradigm, his kind of argument was dominant among those favoring the death penalty. Religious people understood, and believed that a measure of justice and punishment for wrong behavior was an important foundational principle on which civilized people built. Orthodox Presbyterian and Congregationalist clergymen constantly advanced this perspective against the more humanistic theology pressed by Unitarians, Universalists and the Quakers. Because it was once so important and has by no means disappeared today, it belongs at the head of the selections in this chapter.
Finally, a sophisticated and moderate apology for capital punishment has been constructed by secular moralists. These individuals do not turn to religious writings to support their beliefs, nor do they resort to a position of simple retribution. In fact, even modern times have all but silenced the voices of previous generations who lobbied for the death penalty on the basis of social theory. Very few correctional officials have risen to defend capital punishment in recent years. In fact, few prison officials with responsibilities that include capital punishment uphold the need for executions. A larger majority of contemporary psychiatrists, criminologists, penologists, and social workers have become opposed to the death penalty. The result is that we have not had in recent decades anything approaching a full-scale justification of the death penalty from the point-of-view of modern social science as can be seen in the writings of those 50 to 100 years prior.
Opposition to the Death Penalty dichotomy currently exists within the criminal justice system between those who are on the outside, responsible for sending criminals into the penal system, and those who are in the penal facilities, taking care of criminals. The difference in opinion revolved mostly around the difference between theory, and practice. On the outside, looking in, law enforcement officials and judges feel that putting a criminal behind bars is an act of responsibility toward the community at large. The community must be protected, and the criminal must be punished for their deeds. On the inside of the walls, however, officials and researchers see that the staged goals of justice, and deterrence have not been reached through capital punishment.
Donal MacNamara in his 1961 piece against capital punishment sited 10 distinct reasons which capital punishment should be opposed by modern society. Although he was writing for the Church of Christ as a minister, his argument was based on social realities, and only one was based on religious doctrine. His reasons are:
Capital punishment is criminologically unsound. The death penalty is the antithesis…