To Hang or Not to Hang Essay

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The debate and controversy surrounding the issue of death penalty has been revisited numerous times.  Bohm (1991) rightly concludes that over the last decade and a half, few issues have received greater attention in criminology and criminal justice than the proper role of capital punishment in this society.[1](p.4)  And like most social debates, the battle has been fought beyond the legislative halls and into the everyday grind of daily life.  Opinions are abundant as individuals passionately make the cases in support of or in opposition to the penalty of death.  And through the written word, this writer wishes to contribute to the debate.

Thesis

 It is this writers view that the death penalty should be abolished.  However, it must be clearly stated that this opinion is not primarily founded on the usual moral or religious reasons.  Rather, abolishment of the death penalty should be had as it is a waste of potentially productive human life and is contrary to the interests of the state.  This paper, in the latter sections, will also introduce an alternative model to death penalty that will reconcile the points-of-view of those in favor and those opposed to the penalty.

In order to sufficiently discuss the arguments for the abolition, it is necessary that the movement, dubbed the Abolitionist Movement, be traced to its roots.  According to Schabas (1997), the abolitionist movement finds its roots in the writings of European theorists Montesquieu, Voltaire and Bentham, and English Quakers John Bellers and John Howard. However, it was Cesare Beccarias 1767 essay, On Crimes and Punishment that had an especially strong impact throughout the world. In the essay, Beccaria theorized that there was no justification for the states taking of a life.[2] (p.13)

            Those in favor of abolishing the death penalty usually present a case founded on the following arguments that the death penalty (1) is a cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment, (2) does not serve as an effective deterrent to crime and (3) is morally reprehensible as only the Supreme Power has the right to take a human life, especially considering that the courts pronouncement of guilt may be subject to error.

            The first argument is reiterated by Amnesty International (AI), the leading international non-governmental Human Rights organization calling for the abolition.  According to AI, [a]n execution, just like torture, involves a deliberate assault on a prisoner. Even so-called humane methods such as lethal injection can entail excruciating suffering.[3]  In Why Abolish the Death Penalty? (2007), the same organization called on the United Nations to abolish the penalty by likening it to torture: [l]ike torture, an execution constitutes an extreme physical and mental assault on a person already rendered helpless by government authorities.[4] If tortuous acts are now found to be universally reprehensible, there is no logical argument why capital punishment could not be considered in the same light.

            Secondly, the statistics with regard to the relationship between capital punishment and crime rates are contradictory and inconsistent.  Many factors affect criminality in the society: socio-economic conditions, poverty rates, levels of education etc.  By saying that the institution of capital punishment will ensure a crime-free society, or atleast lessen the incidences of criminality, is misleading and uncorroborated by statistical data.

            Thirdly, there is a question of morality involved in this debate. Does the state have the moral ascendancy to take away a persons life?  There are obviously religious issues that are interlocked within this debate. However, even despite whatever religious arguments there may be, there is still the great issue of the courts fallibility.  There have been many cases, well-documented at that, wherein a pronouncement of guilt has been overturned.

How then could one ensure that we are not killing innocents? Upon closer examination, the practice of the death penalty reveals that no criminal justice system is, or conceivably could be, capable of deciding fairly, consistently and infallibly¦ criminal justice systems are vulnerable to discrimination and error. Expediency, discretionary decisions and prevailing public opinion may influence the proceedings.[5]

Anti-Thesis

Those who support the continued application or the reinstitution of the death penalty use the issue of deterrence as their main argument.  It is the first and foremost duty of the state to protect its citizens from dangers to their persons and property.  The death penalty is one way of accomplishing this task.

In Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment? The Experts on Both Sides Make Their Best Case (2004), Bedau writes that [p]erhaps the most straightforward argument for the death penalty is that it saves innocent lives by preventing convicted murderers from killing again.[6](187) This conclusion is rooted in the logic that for those of reasonable intelligence and unimpaired faculties, there is usually a thought-process (even if short-lived) that precedes the commission of an act; a thought process that weighs the pros, cons and possible consequences.

In the above quoted work by Bedau, Professor James Q. Wilson explains that   [p]eople are governed in their daily lives by rewards and penalties of every sort. We shop for bargain prices, praise our children for good behavior and scold them for bad, expect lower interest rates to stimulate home building and fear that higher ones will depress it, and conduct ourselves in public in ways that lead our friends and neighbors to form good opinions of us. To assert that deterrence doesnt work is tantamount to either denying the plainest facts of everyday life or claiming that would-be criminals are utterly different from the rest of us.[7] (189)

In order to understand the complex question of capital punishment as a deterrent, writes Bedau in The Death Penalty in America: An Anthology (1964), it is necessary to place it within the context of the nature and purposes of punishments in general. Punishments under law are usually framed with a two-fold purpose”retribution and prevention.[8](258) A punishment serves to incapacitate the offender in order that he or she will no longer to able to commit more crimes.  This may be done relatively (through incarceration) or absolutely (through capital punishment).  But by far the most common way to employ a punishment as a preventative of crime is to adopt a sufficiently severe penalty so as to compel general obedience out of fear of the consequences of disobedience”the classic doctrine of deterrence.[9] (260)

It must be noted that the State is not a gleeful party in this debate that revels with each death of a wayward citizen.  The death of a citizen is a tragic event; tragic but necessary with the view of safeguarding the rest of the unerring population.  Not only will it ensure that rapists and murderers will feel the full brunt of the laws retribution, it will discourage others with similar deviant tendencies.

Those who cry for abolition, twist Sacred Scripture to suit their needs.  An example of how misleading abolitionists arguments can be is reflected in this passage from Bedau (1964)[10]:

Many who oppose capital punishment make a strong argument out of the Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill ( Exod. 20:13). But they fail to note the commentary on that Commandment which follows: Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death¦. If a man willfully attacks another to kill him treacherously, you shall take him from my altar that he may die ( Exod. 21:12,14). It is faulty exegesis to take a verse of Scripture out of its context and interpret it without regard to its qualifying words. (124)

            Capital Punishment, therefore, is a necessary measure to ensure that the state has sufficient leverage against those who commit heinous crimes.  Its modern application is spared for those individuals who have insurmountable evidence against them.  Supporting the death penalty does not mean that there are some people who deserve to die.  Rather, it means that every individual in society deserve to have safe streets for themselves and for their children.

Synthesis

            Like the proponents for each faction in this debate, I too have a passionate argument for the abolition of capital punishment.  However, I oppose it not merely on the bases of the conventional arguments, outline in the first section.  Personally, I am not wholly convinced with the arguments and rationale of either side.

To clarify my claim, I cannot in good conscience support capital punishment because it is a waste of a potentially productive human life.  Furthermore, on some level, I feel that death is not the ultimate retribution.  For heinous crimes like the rape of a minor or the murder of a child, as a citizen, I would expect nothing less than the full wrath of the law unto a person.

If the death penalty were abolished from systems entirely, the remaining heavy retributive method left for the state would be lifetime imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  This would, and is probably already, straining the resources of the states by having to build more prisons with money that could have otherwise gone into other areas of society that need rehabilitation: healthcare, education, etc. Therefore, I see another model as an alternative: Death Penalty should be the choice of the condemned person.

            If the thought of death is unpalatable to the inmate, as it could understandably be, there should be a system of Death row livelihood put into place.  But instead of the inmates getting the revenues or even a portion of it, the money created should either be put back into the government system, using the funds to benefit causes like education that are definitely of more societal worth than expending money on killing these people.

            There are many non-threatening jobs that could be done by inmates from the safety of their own prison cells, like sorting mail or doing laundry.  This would create an entire labour force that supports itself.  Unlike slavery or involuntary servitude, these inmates have been found guilty of heinous crimes, none of which (ideally) would be of having the wrong skin-tone.  One of the main reasons for the existence of a penitentiary system is not merely to punish but also to rehabilitate those who have been found of being a danger to the rest of civilized society.

How then does killing them or keeping them incarcerated accomplish that? We would be making more animals than saving human beings.  By putting them to work, it would not only make the abolitionists happy but also the coffers of the state would get healthier. And more importantly, it cannot be involuntary servitude should the inmate opt to work instead of being injected with a deadly cocktail, or being electrocuted, hung or shot by a firing squad.

            Surely after years of human evolution, we can find a better, more intelligent way of punishing those that dare to wreak havoc and endanger the rest of civil society.










Reference Page




Amnesty International.  Death Penalty. Retrieved from www.amnesty.org on 22 July,

2008




Amnesty International. Why Abolish the Death Penalty (2007). Retrieved from

            www.amnesty.org on 22 July, 2008




Bedau, A. (2004). Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital

Punishment? The Experts on Both Sides Make Their Best Case. Oxford University Press. New York.




Bedau, A. (1964) The Death Penalty in America: An Anthology. Aldine Publishing.

            Chicago.




Bohm, R. ed. (1991) The Death Penalty in America: Current Research. Anderson

            Publishing Co.




Schabas, W. (1997). The Abolition of the Death Penalty in International Law. Cambridge

University Press, second edition

 

[1] Bohm, R. ed. (1991) The Death Penalty in America: Current Research. Anderson Publishing Co.

[2] Schabas, W. (1997). The Abolition of the Death Penalty in International Law. Cambridge University Press, second edition

[3] Amnesty International.  Death Penalty. Retrieved from www.amnesty.org on 22 July, 2008

[4] Amnesty International. Why Abolish the Death Penalty (2007). Retrieved from www.amnesty.org on 22 July, 2008

[5] ibid.

[6] Bedau, A. (2004). Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment? The Experts on Both Sides Make Their Best Case. Oxford University Press. New York.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bedau, A. (1964) The Death Penalty in America: An Anthology. Aldine Publishing. Chicago.




[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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