The Death Penalty
an article by Erika Yan
Dear Asian Youth,
There should be no argument that the value of a life is priceless. No one has the right to take life away from another person, regardless of the crimes they have committed. And yet, capital punishment, or the death penalty, is still legal in 28 states. As of January 1st, 2020, there were 2,620 people on death row. Instinctively, one would argue that the death penalty is the most severe form of punishment and should be used only to deter the absolute worst criminals. However, capital punishment is a flawed system, and it is unconscionable that it continues to exist, especially when it doesn’t make exceptions for fallibility.
Sentencing someone to death sounds like something from an ancient era—one where people were accused of witchcraft and killed with guillotines. However, just two weeks ago on July 14th, the Supreme Court allowed the Justice Department to carry out a federal execution, the first one since 2003. The constitutionality of the death penalty is highly debated, and ultimately, the Supreme Court gets the final say in specific cases. However, by 2019, 106 countries had completely abolished the death penalty. In fact, most First World nations have abolished capital punishment, and the United States needs to follow suit. Simply looking at it from an economic standpoint, a typical death penalty case can cost up to $3 million, which is significantly more than life imprisonment (about $45,000). Many state studies have been done regarding the costs of the death penalty, and it can be seen that capital cases and maintaining the capital punishment system cost significantly more than cases without the death penalty. Millions of dollars could be saved annually if the death penalty was replaced by life sentences, and this money could be put towards programs that would curb violent crime and drug rehabilitation, like mental health services and child protection services. By focusing on prevention rather than punishment, we can tackle the root of crime and work towards a better criminal justice system.
Moreover, our criminal justice system is incapable of protecting the innocent. Since 1973, over 165 death-row prisoners have been exonerated. Research suggests about 4.1% of defendants sentenced to death are likely innocent. In our criminal justice system, there is already a high risk of convicting an innocent person, but this margin of error becomes even more unacceptable when this innocent person could die. Human beings inevitably make mistakes; therefore, it is not fair to give them the power to deliver an irreversible punishment. There is no way to correctly determine how many people sentenced to death may have been innocent, but cases with strong evidence of innocence include those of Troy Davis, Carlos Deluna, Gary Graham, Cameron Todd Willingham, and Larry Swearingen (more listed here). But courts typically don’t consider innocence claims when the defendant has been executed. These people lost their lives and had their names forever tainted by their wrongful execution. If we had abolished the death penalty, and they were all sentenced to life imprisonment instead, many of them might have been pardoned today.
The main reason why people tolerate the death penalty is because they believe it is an effective deterrent against crime. However, there is no proof that the death penalty is more effective than life imprisonment. States with death penalty laws don’t have lower crime or murder rates than states without these laws—it has actually been found to be higher. In a 2009 study, 88% of the country’s top criminologists didn’t believe the death penalty discourages homicide. Additionally, 87% believed that the abolition of the death penalty would not have any significant effect on murder rates, and 75% agreed that debates about this distract legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime problems. Psychologically, people who commit these horrible crimes are not always in a mental state that allows them to logically consider the consequences of their actions. An effective deterrent, then, could be if the punishment was immediate and obvious, but the death penalty is neither of those things. If the death penalty is no more effective than life imprisonment and counterintuitively costs more, why should we keep it? In that sense, it truly serves no purpose.
These deadly mistakes that cost the lives of predominantly BIPOC and those without access to legal representation. A defendant’s legal team is crucial to avoiding a death sentence. However, the poor who cannot afford effective lawyers are often discriminated against and very few states provide enough funding for capital defense counsel. Like every other injustice in society, the death penalty favors the guilty and rich over the innocent and poor. Everyone is supposed to be equal in the eyes of the law, but currently, our justice system disregards the poor in favor of the affluent, and sentencing them to death only enhances this disparity.
In many states, African Americans are disproportionately represented—they make up only 13% of the population, yet 42% of those on death row and 34% of the executed are African Americans. Furthermore, a review by the U.S. DOJ found that 48% of white defendants were able to avoid a death sentence through plea bargaining, while only 25% of African American defendants and 28% of Hispanic defendants were able to do the same. This difference displays the extensive racism in our justice system; even the worst criminals deserve “to be fairly tried and lawfully punished,” but these statistics show that some criminals can get off easily just by being white. Just 2% of the United States’ counties have produced 52% of all executions and 56% of prisoners on death row since 1976. Over 40% of all recorded executions occurred in Texas, the leading executing state in the country. One reason for this is their low tolerance stance on crime (which leads to wrongful executions) but race also plays a large role in this. Capital punishment is historically intertwined with racial bias as a legacy of slavery and discrimination, and this can be seen especially clearly in Texas. Death sentences are more frequently given when the victims are white than when they are black, and this promotes racial disparities and taints capital punishment. The death penalty is just another way for the justice system to discriminate against the politically powerless, and we need to abolish this outdated practice to progress as a country.
The United States is supposed to champion human rights, but the death penalty discredits that claim. It is about time we join the majority of the developed nations in the world and end capital punishment. Unsurprisingly, Trump has repeatedly stated that he supports the death penalty, and the Trump Administration was the one to resume executions after 17 years. What makes that even scarier is that there is currently a Republican majority in the Supreme Court. Conversely, Biden promises to work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, replacing it with life sentences without probation/parole. For this reason, it is increasingly important that we vote blue in November.