Death Penalty Issues

The history of the death penalty is a long and brutal one. From the stoning and crucifixion killings of the B.C. era to today’s methods of the electric chair and lethal injection, governments of one kind or another have sentenced people to death for thousands of years.

Capital Punishment in the United States

While most of the free world has abolished the death penalty, many of the states within the U.S.  continue to use capital punishment in their criminal justice systems. In 1972, the United States Supreme Court suspended the imposition of the death penalty, finding it unconstitutional because it was imposed disproportionately on minorities and the poor. The ban was brief. The Court approved new statutes in 1976, and government-sponsored killings resumed.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the most common method of execution among states with the death penalty is lethal injection, which is authorized by 32 states, as well as the U.S. Military and the U.S. Government. Smaller numbers of states continue to use methods such as electrocution, gas chambers, hanging, and even firing squads.

The death penalty debate is a heated one in this country today. Many proponents of the death penalty argue that it deters criminals from killing. However, research does not support the idea that the possibility of receiving the death penalty deters criminals from committing murder. In fact, studies by the Death Penalty Information Center show that murder rates tend to be higher in the South (where the imposition of the death penalty is the highest) compared to the Northeast United States (where the death penalty is less commonly applied).

Wrongfully Sentencing the Innocent to Death

As innocence organizations across the country can attest to, the criminal justice system does not always get it right – even for the most heinous of crimes. As long as the death penalty is in place, we risk executing an innocent person. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 165 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973. The state of Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 despite strong evidence of his innocence. In 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan placed a moratorium on the penalty after 13 men had been exonerated from death row since 1977. Following Governor Ryan’s lead, and after the state conducted extensive studies, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a law abolishing the death penalty in 2011.

The Cost of the Death Penalty

The cost of capital punishment is extraordinary. Since 1978, California has spent more than $4 billion administering the death penalty, or more than $308 million per person for each of the 13 people who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated. Conversely, it costs approximately $200,000 to $300,000 to convict and sentence an individual to life without the possibility of parole. If those sentenced to death received life sentences instead, we accomplish the same deterrent effect of the death penalty: criminals remain off the streets for the rest of their lives. The money saved could be spent on improving the criminal justice system, such as increasing public safety or providing resources to help prevent wrongful convictions.

Reforms in California

In November of 2016, California voters passed Proposition 66, a measure to expedite the death penalty process. Three years later, in 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on capital punishment just months after his inauguration. The executive order ends all death penalty sentences from being carried out throughout his tenure as Governor. During his announcement, Governor Newsom said, “I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings, knowing that among them will be innocent human beings.”

Research proves that the death penalty is ineffective; it does not deter crime, and it is extremely expensive to administer. While most incarcerated individuals – on death row or otherwise – are guilty, we cannot risk executing the innocent individuals wrongfully sentenced to death.