Death penalty, or capital punishment, is a highly controversial issue of the criminal justice system. In most of the countries, it has been abolished as an inhumane type of punishment based on the principle of the universal human right to life protected by the UN Declaration of Human Rights. However, some US states still practice death penalty as a punishment for exceptionally severe crimes and cruelty, which is considered justifiable. On the one hand, punishing maniacs and violent murderers for serial crimes with a death may be reasonable from the viewpoint of compensating the grief and suffering of victims’ families and prevention of the risk that such crimes may be repeated in future. Nevertheless, application of death penalty is often flawed, which necessitates its abolition for the sake of achieving more adequacy and justice in criminal prosecutions.
Numerous biases in the death penalty-related decisions make it a form of punishment far from ideal and objective. For instance, Steinberg and Scott (2003) raised the issue of guilt measurement according to age; the researchers pointed out that juveniles at times commit very violent and cruel murders, but they should be awarded milder sentences for such criminal acts because their decision-making capacity is diminished because of their young age. On the one hand, the researchers’ considerations of age-related decision-making capacities are reasonable, but the fact remains: juvenile crimes are no less violent than adult crimes are, so the bias of death penalty decisions is evident here.
The second persistent bias in the death penalty decisions is noticed by researchers in terms of race; though the times of segregation and racial discrimination seem to be long gone, there are still numerous cases of biased attitude to minority criminals. Bright (1995) examined the new US legislation on death penalty introduced in 1976 to prevent arbitrariness and discrimination in death sentences and found out that poor minority criminals are still highly vulnerable to harsher sentences in the US courts, facing jury discretion and prejudice contributing to death penalty decisions. These findings were later substantiated by Lee, Paternoster, and Rowan (2015) claiming that the association between race and death penalty is still present in the USA.
The third most convincing point against proceeding with the use of death penalty in the USA is the issue of procedural error that has caused many convictions and killings of innocent people. While being blinded by some racial or socioeconomic biases, the jury in some cases sentenced innocent people to death, and their wrongful accusations surfaced only after the sentence had come into force. As Bedau (1998) emphasized, this is too much of a burden for the US criminal justice system to assume, as it equals the US criminal prosecution to murderers and maniacs it is called to prosecute and isolate from the society. Dealing with such criminal justice mistakes is always negative publicity, and each new case of the proven mistaken death penalty serves as additional evidence of the need to change things and search for more effective punishment modes for severe, violent crimes.
Looking at the crimes of some maniacs, one may be filled with anger and rage, wishing to destroy the criminal and prevent such dramas in future. However, it is a highly subjective position that a national criminal justice system cannot take; courts should be guided by the principles of human dignity and equality. Thus, given that the death sentence is most often irreversible, avoidance of dreadful mistakes is possible only in case death penalty is abolished.
Bedau, H. A. (1998). The death penalty in America: current controversies. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Bright, S. B. (1995). Discrimination, death and denial: the tolerance of racial discrimination in infliction of the death penalty. Santa Clara Law Review, 35(2), https://ssrn.com/abstract=2769644.
Lee, J. G. C., Paternoster, R., & Rowan, Z. (2015). Death penalty and race. In The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Nationalism. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Steinberg, L. & Scott, E. S. (2003). Less guilty by reason of adolescence: developmental immaturity, diminished responsibility, and the juvenile death penalty. American Psychologist, 58(12), 1009-1018.
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