Pros and cons of the death penalty are a sharply dividing issue in US politics. Let’s look beyond the rhetoric to explore the facts and what both sides think. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
US Death Penalty Background
Pros and cons of the death penalty are a sharply dividing, emotionally charged subject in American politics. Before examining what both sides think, let’s review the facts.
The death penalty, also known as capital punishment, has existed in the US since colonial times. Today, the death penalty is a legal punishment for capital crimes. It’s typically reserved for aggravated murder, but Congress, state legislatures, and the military can define which offenses and circumstances are eligible.
The federal death penalty is valid in all US states and territories, although federal executions are historically rare. Since 1927, the federal government has conducted 50 executions.
Of the 50 states, 34 have either banned the death penalty or not carried out an execution in the past 10 years. In 2020, five states conducted executions: Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Missouri, and Tennessee. One state, Colorado, banned the practice the same year.
The US Supreme Court imposed a defacto-moratorium on the death penalty in 1972, due to concerns of arbitrary sentence application. The Court reaffirmed the death penalty’s constitutionality in 1976, when 66 percent of Americans supported its use. Now, let’s explore the pros and cons of the death penalty, starting with the pros.
Pros of Death Penalty
For death penalty supporters, one major pro is its effectiveness as a crime deterrent. In 2006, Dr. Paul Rubin — professor of economics at Emory University — testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the death penalty’s “strong deterrent effect.” Based on his team’s analysis, Dr. Rubin asserted that, on average, each execution deters 18 murders. He also cited 11 similar studies — including one suggesting that death row sentences and executions deter all types of murders.
Another pro often cited by supporters: the death penalty is a moral, constitutional, and equivalent retribution for taking a life. In terms of constitutionality, supporters have the Supreme Court on their side. The Court reaffirmed that — when applied with objective discretion — the death penalty is not “cruel and unusual punishment.”
In agreement with the Court, proponets believe the death penalty’s continued public support is an important pro. The latest Gallup poll on the issue, released in November 2020, shows 55 percent of people support the death penalty for convicted murderers. Of its polling on the death penalty since 1936, Gallup says support fell below the 50 percent mark only once — in 1960.
Cons of Death Penalty
Numerous organizations rally against the death penalty, calling it a human rights violation. One con they highlight: wrongful convictions and executions. Since 1973, 185 death row inmates were exonerated following more thorough federal reviews. That doesn’t include convicts who were executed but later deemed innocent by some.
Another con opponents cite: cruel and unusual punishment throughout the process. Death row inmates often spend one or two decades in solitary confinement throughout the appeals process. Additionally, the majority of executions in the US are conducted by lethal injection. Activists consider both practices cruel and unusual.
Disparities in who receives the death penalty in the US is considered another con. While Black Americans make up 13 percent of the US population, more than 40 percent of the country’s current death row population is Black. The ACLU also asserts that many death row convicts suffer from severe mental illness and thereby cannot comprehend their sentences.Lastly, opponents argue that there is no proof that the death penalty deters future murders. As evidence, they cite studies indicating that murder rates are higher in states that permit the death penalty. They also argue that death row and executions cost taxpayers significantly more money than life imprisonment.
What Both Sides Think
Opinions on the pros and cons of the death penalty typically fall along party lines. Republican support remains steady, around 80 percent, throughout the past 20 years, Gallup reports. Meanwhile, Democrats’ support declined from 55 percent in 2000-2010 to 39 percent in 2017-2020.
The same divide exists among state governments. The five states that carried out executions in 2020 are Republican controlled. Additionally, three Republican-led states expanded criteria for death penalty sentences in 2019, while two states governed by Democrats limited its use.
During President Trump’s final year in office, his administration reinstated federal executions after a 17-year hiatus. The Republican administration conducted 13 executions within six months. “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Attorney General William P. Barr said in a press release.
In contrast, on the campaign trail, Democratic President Joe Biden pledged to eliminate the federal death penalty. His attorney general also expressed concerns regarding the “large number” of exonerations, especially among Black men. As stated by US Attorney General Merrick Garland, “It’s a terrible thing that occurs when somebody is convicted of a crime that they did not commit.”