Abolishing the Death Penalty: Working Toward Fixing a Broken Criminal Justice System
Zach Dobson (PPS ’24)
The death penalty is, has been, and always will be one of the most egregiously destructive aspects of the criminal justice system. There are many arguments, both moral and practical, for why the death penalty should be abolished. The main arguments being the belief in a fundamental right to life, the permanence of death, and the death penalty’s discriminatory nature toward marginalized populations. For these reasons, the death penalty’s practice in the United States should be abolished, and no more convicted individuals should be put to death for their actions.
I do believe that, in a society fundamentally governed by morality, those who commit acts that interfere with others’ ability to pursue life, liberty, and happiness should be punished. However, taking away their life is an extreme violation of human rights. In this nation’s Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men living within this new republic are to be awarded the unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. The death penalty stands in opposition to the sentiments of this founding document, and thus the fundamental role of government set forth by the founding fathers over two hundred years ago.
The permanence of death is the second reason for the abolition of the death penalty. Our criminal justice system has fallen short countless times throughout history and doling out such a permanent punishment as death would leave no room for rectification should a conviction be overturned decades later. Since 1973, 186 individuals on death row have been exonerated on grounds of innocence in the United States. This statistic does not, however, include the countless innocent individuals who have already been executed due to the failure of our criminal justice system.
The final argument for the abolition of the death penalty is its adverse effect on marginalized populations. The criminal justice system in the United States blatantly favors those with more monetary resources, as adequate legal representation is one of the key factors in successfully maneuvering the legal process. According to the NIJ, the largest inmate population in the United States is Black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-four. Also, the pre-incarceration income of incarcerated individuals was found to be 41% less than the national average for their age group. Therefore, the death penalty, an extension of our criminal justice system, negatively affects communities of color and those living in poverty at a disproportionate rate.
The U.S. continuously houses the most incarcerated individuals in the world and had the sixth-highest number of executions in 2019. These executions do not occur across the entire country, however, as twenty-three states (including my home state of Virginia) have completely abolished the death penalty, and an additional three states are operating under a governor-mandated moratorium. The main arguments for the death penalty are those of retribution and future crime deterrence. Proponents believe that guilty parties deserve to be proportionally punished based on the severity of their crimes (i.e., if someone is convicted of murder, their own life should then be taken). However, while the loss of life in any circumstance is tragic, the problem is not solved with the loss of another life. This vengeful practice of “an eye for an eye” is contrary to the fundamental right to life established in the founding document of our nation. The government has no right to infringe upon an individual’s right to life in response to their similar action. Furthermore, many believe that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime at all. In a 1996 study, 83.6% of criminologists responding to a survey believed the death penalty does not act as a deterrent to murder or lower the murder rate. This is based on the belief that if an individual already has the intent to commit murder, they will do so regardless of the repercussions. The possibility of their own death in the future does not typically impact the decisions of these criminals.
There are actions being taken in Congress to abolish the death penalty at the federal level. The Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act of 2021, if passed, would prohibit the administration of the death penalty for federal offenses. However, the most ideal course of action would be its abolition in all states. For this to happen, state legislatures must introduce legislation that prohibits the execution of incarcerated individuals for any crime. Once this occurs, our criminal justice system will experience a transformational shift from punitive to restorative justice, thus upholding the intended morality of our legal institutions.
Zach Dobson (PPS ’24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’22 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.