death penalty is one of the few social issues where the United States's political position more closely resembles that of Uganda, Iraq, and Pakistan than that of Britain and most European nations. In fact, the U.S. is the only Western nation that practices capital punishment. Although the Supreme Court outlawed it in 1972 on the premise that it was unconstitutional, they changed their position in 1976, and the death penalty was re-instituted. So, why does the U.S., a country that prides itself on its commitment to human rights, continue a practice that the entire Western world has outlawed and its own court once outlawed because they believed it was "harsh, freakish, and arbitrary"? (Furman v. Georgia, U.S. 238, 408) Most proponents of the death penalty argue that it deters criminals from committing the most serious crimes, reduces criminal homicide rates, and is more cost efficient than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. However, as this paper will show, these views are inconsistent with the statistics and the research. Additionally, the risk of error in an inherently human, and thereby fallible, system far outweighs any advantages it may have.
Although those who support capital punishment argue that it decreases murder rates, statistically speaking this is completely inaccurate. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, in 1976, the last year capital punishment was prohibited under the Furman ruling, the national murder rate was 8.8. In 1994, the murder rate was 9. This certainly suggests that capital punishment does not, in fact, reduce the rate or number of murders. Additionally, states with the death penalty do not have lower homicide rates than those without. In some cases, the death penalty can even incite violence, with several case studies discussing "suicide by execution," a phenomena in which people want to die but are too afraid to die by there own hand. As a result, they commit murder so the states will do it for them (West, Solomon, and Diamond, 1976).
Furthermore, police chiefs interviewed about crime deterrents listed the death penalty as the least effective (Dieter, 1995, 2). Additionally, while some people argue that the death penalty is a necessity because it is the only way to reduce recidivism, this is also not statistically supported. When the death penalty was reversed in 1972, death row prisoners found themselves with reduced sentences. A study of the patterns of behavior of 533 inmates whose sentences were reduced found that less than 2% went on to kill again. More importantly, it also found that four of the men who were originally sentenced to death were actually innocent (Bedau,1982).
Proponents of the death penalty also argue that it is the best deterrent for crimes against law enforcement officers. However, in the years since the death penalty was instituted, states with the death penalty have never shown statistically lower rates of assaults on law enforcement officers. According to Bailey and Peterson, there is "no support for the view that the death penalty provides a more effective deterrent to police homicides than alternative sanctions. Not for a single year was evidence found that police are safer in jurisdictions that provide for capital punishment." Furthermore, according to the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, death penalty states have considerably higher rates of prison violence, accounting for 84% of inmate violence and 98% of violence against officers.
Another serious problem with the death penalty is its frequent failure to be administered fairly. The U.S. General Accounting Office reviewed a number of studies on the death penalty in 1990 and subsequently issued a report to Congress. In it, they stated that "Our synthesis of the 28 studies shows a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty after the Furman decision" and that "race of victim influence was found at all stages of the criminal justice system process…"(U.S. General Accounting Office, 1990, 5-6). Those sentenced to death tend to be black men from low socioeconomic areas who have committed crimes against white victims. According to the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 313 criminals were executed between 1977-1995. Of those, only 20% were put…