Bring the U.S. out of the Dark Ages

The death penalty remains expensive and ineffective — and barbaric

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: This column incorrectly states that the U.S. is the only “major democratic power that still uses capital punishment.” Capital punishment is legal in Japan, India, South Korea and Taiwan.

Every four years, the United Nations undertakes a review of member nations’ human rights situations. The United States was recently evaluated, and one conspicuous recommendation was that the country abolish the death penalty.

“While we respect those who make these recommendations, we note that they reflect continuing policy differences, not a genuine difference about what international law requires,” said the U.S. State Department’s legal adviser, Harold Koh.

While Mr. Koh is correct in pointing out that the death penalty is not technically illegal, the facts show that the policy is both costly and ineffective. According to deathpenaltyinfo.org, a database of death penalty statistics and information, the South conducted 1,000 executions since 1976, the year that the Supreme Court ruled capital punishment to be constitutional after a four-year ban. But the same region had the highest annual murder rate in the country between 2001 and 2009, fluctuating between 6 and 7 per 100,000 people. The Midwest and the West had murder rates hovering around 5, while conducting 141 and 67 executions, respectively. The Northeast, which has conducted only 4 executions since 1976, has the lowest murder rate, consistently coming in at around 4 per 100,000.

These statistics can be broken down even further. In 2009, the average murder rate for states with a death penalty was 4.9 per 100,000 people, while the average murder rate for states without a death penalty was only 2.8. Furthermore, in 2009, of the 25 states with the highest murder rates, 23 of them have death penalties. According to information from the Census department, in 2006, of the 25 states with the most violent crimes, 21 of them had death penalties. States that use the death penalty do not see lower murder rates.

And yet, the death penalty imposes an enormous financial burden on our country. In nearly all states with a death penalty, it costs more annually to carry out carry out an execution than sentence someone to lifetime incarceration. Based on a 2008 report from the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, the annual cost of the death penalty system in California is conservatively estimated to be $137 million, when the additional appeals and investigations are included. The cost of a system which imposes a maximum penalty of lifetime incarceration in place of the death penalty would be $11.5 million. A 2004 report shows that in Tennessee, it costs 48 percent more to conduct a death penalty trial than the average trial where a prosecutor is seeking life imprisonment. And according to a study conducted in December 2003, in Kansas, investigation costs in death penalty cases were 300 percent greater than those in non-death cases. Financially, the death penalty isn’t worth it. Alternative options, namely life imprisonment, cost substantially less and still remove societal threats.

In addition to its ineffectiveness and high cost, the death penalty is a permanent sentence issued by an imperfect system. That is, someone who is found to be innocent after conviction can be released from prison, but they can’t be brought back from the dead. How often does this happen? Remarkably, quite frequently. Since 1973, 138 people in 26 states have been released from death row after having been proven innocent. Some have been exonerated through DNA evidence, which was not done before 1989. It leaves us to wonder just how many innocent people the state and federal government has executed through this grossly ineffective policy.

It is shameful that the United States still utilizes such a barbaric sentence. The Code of Hammurabi, which established the idea of an “eye for an eye,” was written in 1760 B.C., yet the U.S., one of the most advanced and democratic countries in the world, still adheres to it. There is not a single other major democratic power that still uses capital punishment. In fact, in 2008, the countries with the most executions were China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Pakistan and Iraq, in that order. To be grouped with such backward, undemocratic, and human rights deficient countries is disgusting. Furthermore, sitting on death row has been known to induce “death row syndrome,” marked by dangerous insanity, delusions, and suicidal tendencies. With an average time of 12 and a half years spent on death row between conviction and execution in 2007, a sentence of capital punishment is tantamount to torture. Torturing and killing convicted felons is immoral in every sense of the word, and should be done away with.

The death penalty does not work. Instead of discouraging crimes, states with the death penalty have the highest crime rates in the country. And not only is the policy ineffective, it is costing taxpayers exorbitant amounts of money, especially when compared to the cheaper costs of alternative sentences. Sentencing is not infallible; many innocent individuals have been sentenced to death row and, unlike other incorrect sentences, the death penalty cannot be undone. Even while waiting on death row, the psychological torture and subsequent execution that takes place is not fitting of a country held in such high moral regard as the United States. Just because the execution is taking place in a clean white room does not change the fact that it is murder. It is unreasonable to condemn murder, and then enact just that upon the perpetrator. There is no logic behind keeping such a defunct and morally abhorrent policy in place. While there may not be a basis in international law for making the death penalty illegal, there is certainly strong data suggesting that governments at the state and federal level should repeal the policy for its lack of effectiveness, high costs and immoral nature.