For many people, the use of the death penalty is thought of as a terrible example of cruel and unusual punishment. People against the idea of capital punishment, or the death penalty, feel that the government shouldn’t have the right to put its citizens to death. They also claim that the system is heavily racially biased and it does not achieve the desired outcome. People who support the idea of the death penalty say it isn’t cruel or unusual or unreasonably biased.
These individuals feel that the death penalty is necessary as a strong deterrent to violent crime that is only delivered following a lengthy and exhaustive process ensuring it is just and fair. They generally come to these conclusions by looking at the issue on a case by case basis or by glancing at the case summaries of a collection of death penalty victims.
However, when one takes a closer look at the justice system as a whole in conjunction with real social issues, it becomes clear that capital punishment is not fair because it is inherently racially biased because racial profiling has lead to much higher incarceration rates for minorities and much harsher sentences for their crimes as a result of this same systematic bias. This makes the death penalty patently and obviously unfair to minorities.
In today’s society, it is common knowledge that wealthy, white criminals are less likely to be executed for committing a crime than an underprivileged minority member of society. If the victim was white or wealthy, the death penalty is more likely to be imposed. These assumptions are proved by the available evidence. Approximately 43 percent of all executions that have been carried out in the United States since 1976 have been of either Black or Hispanic ethnicity.
Also, 55 percent of individuals currently on death row are of these ethnicities. Although almost half of all murders in the United States involve a white victim, more than 80 percent of murder cases being tried in the courts seek judgment for cases involving white victims, demonstrating a grossly unfair prosecution system. In the years between 1976 and 2002, only 12 white people were executed by the system for killing a black person, but 178 black people were killed for the murder of a white person (“Race,” 2003).
“There is ample evidence that the death penalty is applied with a discriminatory impact based on the race of the victim, but a constitutional challenge requires intentional discrimination” (Mello, 1995: 933). Because this intentional, systematic discrimination cannot be proved on a case by case basis, the disparity is permitted to remain in place.
Even the briefest of looks at a prison documentary program conveys a sense that black people are disproportionately over-represented within the criminal justice system. Although they make up only about 6.5 of the overall U.S. population, almost half of all black men in this country are currently behind bars. According to Beck and Mumola (1999), about one-third of all black men have been arrested for something at least once in their lives.
When grouped based on ethnicity like this, it becomes clear that there remains a wide disparity of justice within the ‘justice’ system. “At midyear 2003 there were 4,834 black male prisoners per 100,000 black males in the United States in prison or jail, compared to 1,778 Hispanic male inmates per 100,000 Hispanic males and 681 white male inmates per 100,000 white males” (“Prison Statistics” 2006).
Any justice system that disproportionately executes citizens in this manner cannot possibly be considered just. This has the effect of devaluing the entire American system.
Many people will argue that the death penalty is the most effective way of deterring these types of crime from happening, but this is simply not true. Statistics have shown again and again that people, generally speaking, have very little concept or appreciation for their death and cannot fully appreciate the consequences of the death penalty. Also, murders are typically committed as a result of instant violent emotions acted out in impulsive actions.
In most cases, the murders were not carefully considered beforehand or at least not considered anywhere beyond the relieving of a hurt. Therefore, Johnson (1968) says, “the deterrent case has no validity.”
The death penalty acts as a catalyst for murder as the individual who commits the murder doesn’t consider the consequences of his actions until he or she is fully involved and thus must kill any accidental witnesses rather than risk being caught (Olen & Barry, 1996). Studies such as that conducted by J. Hagan (1985) unanimously demonstrate that the death penalty does not deter crime.
People who feel the death penalty is justified typically invoke the Bible’s reference to ‘an eye for an eye’ in which aggressive behavior must be met with equally aggressive punishment (Olen & Barry, 1996: 268). “This use of punishment is society’s way of striking back at one who has disturbed the emotional and ethical senses of a people” (Lunden, 1967: 232). They also argue that the expense of keeping a criminal in jail is unjustified compared to the cost of killing him.
Those that use the quote from the Old Testament to justify capital punishment either overlooked or ignored the passage in the New Testament where Jesus reminds his followers to instead to ‘turn the other cheek.’ Those that point to the expense disparities are either not aware of or choose to ignore the ‘safeguards’ built into the system that includes years of appeals before the sentence can be carried out.
Racism permeates the family tree of societies and is reflected in all its attitudes, behavior, and institutions. The concept of racism may be conscious or subconscious and is expressed in actions or attitudes initiated by individuals, groups, or institutions that treat human beings unjustly because of their skin pigmentation (Hansman et al., 1999).
The duty of humanitarian, social, and political interests is to make certain all people, regardless of cultural background are both recognized and treated equitably in the criminal justice system. Unquestionably, the death penalty is distributed unevenly. Profiling, incarceration, and punishment up to and including the ultimate, the death penalty are stacked against minorities, does not deter violent crime and does nothing to relieve tensions in the greater community.
Beck, Allen J. Mumola, Christopher J. “Prisoners in 1998” Bureau of Justice Statistics U.S. Department of Justice. 1999.
Hagan, J. Modern Criminology: Crime, Criminal Behavior, and its Control. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1985.
Hansman, Catherine, Leon Spencer, Dale Grant & Mary Jackson. “Beyond Diversity: Dismantling Barriers in Education.” Journal of Instructional Psychology. 1999.
Johnson, E. H. Crime, Correction, and Society. Illinois: The Dorsey Press, 1968.
Lunden, W. A. Crimes and Criminals. Iowa: The Iowa State University Press, 1967.
Mello, M. “Defunding Death.” American Criminal Law Review. Vol. 32, (1995), pp. 933-1012.
Olen, Jeffrey & Barry, Vincent. Applying Ethics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co, 1996.
“Prison Statistics” Bureau of Justice Statistics US Department of Justice. 2006.
“Race and the Death Penalty.” Unequal Justice. New York: American Civil Liberties Union. 2003.