Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects about the American criminal justice system today is the fact that the United States is the only Western nation that still uses capital punishment as a "sentence of last resort" for select types of criminal acts (Morris & Vila, 1997; Schmalleger, 2006). This legacy was not carved in stone, though, and the new states that comprised the United States were, at the beginning of the 19th century, among some of the first jurisdictions in the world to restrict the use of the death penalty and to substitute imprisonment in its place; however, today, the United States remains "the singular holdout among western nations, the lone practitioner of capital punishment and a quite vigorous practitioner at that" (Cottroll, 2004, p. 1641). To determine how the death penalty came about in the United States and what changes have taken place to influence its use over the years, this paper provides a review of the background of the death penalty to identify why it is still used, what trends may affect its use in the future, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Background and overview.
In his book, Criminology Today, Frank Schmalleger (2006) reports that one of the fundamental problems associated with the death penalty as practiced in the United States today is the enormous amount of time required for the process to take place. Automatic reviews and appeals and overcrowded courts can frequently extend the stay of a death row prisoner for years. In response to the State of Texas' recent initiative to limit the number of stays of execution a condemned prisoner could receive while on death row, a television comic was recently heard to observe that, "Other countries around the world are outlawing the death penalty. In this country, we're putting in express lanes" (pers. obs.). The fact that this joke was received with explosive enthusiasm by the young audience is reflective of the bizarre quality of the debate over the death penalty today -- after all, this is the 21st century, isn't it? Furthermore, those who are opposed to capital punishment appear to have sufficient justification for their positions while those who continue to advocate its use are becoming increasingly hard-pressed to find legitimate supporting evidence for its continued use. For example, in his essay, "Trying to Understand America's Death Penalty System and Why We Still Have It," Geraghty (2003) points out that, "Opponents of the death penalty have a lot of ammunition in their arsenals. This country's history of the administration of the death penalty is fraught with evidence of racism. Only in rare instances has anyone other than a poor person been executed. There is no evidence that the death penalty deters crime" (p. 209).
As noted above, the U.S. remains the only Western nation that still uses the death penalty, and is one of the few countries in the world that continues to execute juvenile offenders, only recently having been prevented from executing mentally ill defendants (Geraghty, 2003). According to Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, "It is not so much the number of these States that is significant, but the consistency of the direction of change"; this observation was made in response to the Court's decision to stop the execution of a capital offense defendant with an IQ of 59 (Shapiro, 2002, p. 14). Notwithstanding this bit of progress, the U.S. In fact shares the dubious distinction of continuing to use the death penalty with China, Nigeria, Iraq and Pakistan, where executions are routinely held in public (Bienen, 1999). What confounds and angersmany observers today is the fact that in spite of many death-row inmates being found innocent by virtue of DNA testing and that virtually all of the other developed nations of the world have outlawed the death penalty or carry it out as punishment for only the most egregious of crimes, the U.S. continues to use this punishment on a routine basis.
As the term implies, the "death penalty" is the most severe form of punishment that a state can exact on its citizens, but the practice has been deemed to be constitutional time and again. According to Black's Law Dictionary (1990), the "death penalty" is the "supreme penalty exacted as punishment for murder and other capital crimes. The death penalty has been held to not be, under all circumstances, cruel and unusual punishment within prohibitions of the 8th and 14th Amendments" (p. 400). Not surprisingly, the use of the death penalty and the controversies it has always entailed are certainly not new; in fact, the debates over capital punishment in general date to biblical times; in the United States, these debates began during colonial times when, against the desires of the English Crown, some settlements passed only a few such capital offense laws (Morris & Vila, 1997).
At this early point in U.S. history, some Americans even began to question whether any government should have the power to take a human life, even in the case of a convicted criminal; however, while the death penalty has been outlawed from time to time by the various states, it remains on the books in many places throughout the country today. Not surprisingly, then, "Capital punishment remains a highly controversial and emotional subject that most people seem to have strongly about one way or the other. "The debate is by no means new -- there are conflicting references to capital punishment dating back to the Bible. Nearly two millennia later, we're still arguing the issue and perhaps are no closer to resolving it" (Morris & Vila, p. xxv). Given that capital punishment and the debate it that it carries with it are not going away any time soon, an examination of current and future trends in capital punishment may provide some insights into what will become of the death penalty in the future; these issues are discussed further below.
Current and Future Trends.
On the one hand, Schmalleger reports that the number of persons who have been legally executed in the United States witnessed a steady decline during the 20th century; in fact, after 1967 (the author notes that there was a de facto moratorium on executions from 1967-1977), when the Supreme Court ordered a stay on pending executions in the U.S., there has been a substantial decline every year to date. On the other hand, by 1992, there was a peak in executions in the U.S., and almost three-quarters of the states (36) still have the death penalty on their books, as well as the federal government. All of these states allow executions for first-degree murder, while in selected jurisdictions the crimes of treason, kidnapping, the murder of a police or correctional officer, and murder while under a life sentence are also punishable by the death penalty (Schmalleger, 2006). The results of national surveys of public opinion have indicated that there is little middle ground available for compromise on the death penalty. According to Shapiro (2002):
Whatever the reason, it is clear that we are now in the midst of a full-scale battle over the future of capital punishment. The supposed consensus in favor of the death penalty is just a mirage. We found worries about false convictions and unfair application of the death penalty to minorities and the poor. When we asked the public to consider an alternative punishment for murder, it is evenly divided between the death penalty and life without parole (emphasis added). (p. 14).
There are also some mixed signals about the use of capital punishment coming from the international community. For example, since 1965, 58 countries have abolished capital punishment: 46 of them completely for all types of crimes, and 12 of them for "ordinary crimes" (Hood, 1996). Opponents of capital punishment, though, have been alarmed by other recent trends throughout the country and around the world; in fact, capital punishment has been reintroduced in at least four countries since 1989, and executions have taken place in a number of U.S. states where the death penalty had formerly been held in abeyance (Hood, 1996). Moreover, the death penalty has even been extended in some parts of the world to include some types of criminal acts that are not directly associated with homicide.
Despite these findings, though, there remains a paucity of reliable data upon which to base an informed opinion about what is actually taking place. According to Hood, "Given that many retentionist countries do not convey the relevant details to the United Nations, it is impossible to provide accurate and up-to-date information on the range of crimes to which the death penalty may be applied throughout the world" (p. 56). Further complicating matters is the fact that the political map of the world has experienced a number of profound changes in recent years, making such data collection impossible in many cases. Nevertheless, criminologists in the United States have examined the data that is available since the mid-20th century in…