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10 Reasons Why The Death Penalty is Wrong

The death penalty is wrong because it disproportionately affects certain groups, inflicts physical and psychological torment, burdens taxpayers, and doesn’t deter or resolve the root causes of crime.

Over 70% of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty, but it’s still used in places like China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Public opinion is divided, but over the years, support for the death penalty has waned. Supporters say it’s a valuable crime deterrent while opponents argue it fails in this purpose. In this article, we’ll explore these claims, as well as other reasons why the death penalty is wrong.

#1. It’s inhumane
#2. It inflicts psychological torment
#3. It burdens taxpayers
#4. It doesn’t deter crime
#5. It doesn’t address the root causes of crime
#6. It’s biased against people experiencing poverty
#7. It’s disproportionately hurts people with disabilities
#8. It has a racial bias
#9. It’s used as a tool of authoritarianism
#10. It’s irreversible

#1. It’s inhumane

Content warning: This paragraph includes descriptions of a botched execution

Methods of execution have included firing squads, hanging, the electric chair, and lethal injections. Are these punishments inhumane? Death penalty critics look to The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which is an international treaty intended to prevent actions considered inhumane. While the Convention doesn’t take a clear stance on the death penalty, many believe executions should be classified as cruel and inhumane. For those who believe executions can be performed “humanely,” there’s still the problem of botched executions. Research shows that 3% of executions between 1890-2010 in the US were botched. Lethal injection has the highest rate of error despite being the most common execution option. When injections go wrong, it can take a long time for a prisoner to die.

In 2014 in Oklahoma, Clayton Lockett was subjected to a botched execution. Things started poorly while the execution team hunted for a viable vein and realized they didn’t have the right needles. Then, it took at least 16 pokes to get an IV inserted. Lockett was in clear distress as the drugs began to enter his body, and the execution was halted. Lockett died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the first drug – midazolam – was administered. While it’s not clear if the drug can be blamed in Lockett’s case, sedatives like midazolam have played a role in several botched executions. Given these facts, the death penalty can easily be considered inhumane.

#2. It inflicts psychological torment

While the death penalty can cause severe physical pain, the time spent on death row can inflict psychological torment, as well. According to The Death Penalty Information Center, death-row prisoners in the United States typically spend over a decade waiting for their execution dates or for their death sentences to be overturned. During those agonizing years, prisoners are isolated, excluded from any employment or educational programs, and restricted from exercise or visitation. This can cause what some experts call “death row syndrome,” which makes prisoners suicidal and delusional. The prisoner is essentially tortured while on death row.

The death penalty doesn’t only affect death-row prisoners. Those working on death row suffer, too. In 2022, NPR released an investigation where they spoke with current and former executioners, lawyers, wardens, and other workers who had been involved with more than 200 executions. They reported “serious mental and physical repercussions.” Nearly everyone NPR spoke with no longer supported the death penalty. While some may still believe death is an appropriate punishment for certain crimes, society needs to consider the health of those tasked with carrying out that punishment.

#3. It burdens taxpayers with high costs

States use taxpayer money to fund executions. You may think death penalty sentences cost less than life imprisonment, but research shows that’s not true. According to data collected by Amnesty International, Kansas paid 70% more for a death penalty case than a comparable non-death penalty case. The median cost of a non-death penalty case (through the end of incarceration) is $740,000 while the median cost of a death penalty case through execution is a striking $1.26 million. Why is the death penalty so expensive? Legal and pre-trial fees, as well as the length of death penalty trials, the cost of appeals, and heightened security on death row all cost more than non-death penalty cases.

Many taxpayers have moral qualms about their taxes going to the death penalty, but there are tangible consequences, too. The money used for death penalty cases is being diverted from other measures such as mental health treatment, victim services, drug treatment programs, and more. Most people would prefer their taxes to pay for these types of services rather than long trials, appeals, and other death-penalty case activities.

#3. It doesn’t deter crime

Many people can admit the death penalty is not a perfect system, but if it deters crime, isn’t it worth keeping? That statement contains a big “if.” The Death Penalty Information Center has information showing that states without the death penalty have a consistently lower murder rate than states with the death penalty. Since 1990, the gap has increased. A 2020 analysis found that 9 out of 10 states with the highest pandemic murder rates were states with the death penalty. 8 out of the 11 states with the lowest pandemic murder rates had abolished the death penalty. Data like this suggests that the death penalty does not deter murder.

Why isn’t the threat of death enough to dissuade people from committing murder? The answer may lie in human psychology and the minds of those committing crimes. According to an article in Psychology Today, most offenders don’t behave rationally during a crime. Poor mental health is a common trigger. According to research, 43% of those in state prisons have a diagnosed mental disorder. When it comes to what’s known as “expressive crimes,” which are crimes driven by rage, depression, and drug or alcohol use, people are not thinking about the consequences they might face. The death penalty doesn’t factor into their decision-making.

#4. It doesn’t address the root causes of crime

The causes of crime are complex, but there’s little doubt that the death penalty fails to address them. Consider the United States, which experienced a post-2020 increase in violence. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, gun violence was a major contributor. The FBI found that guns were responsible for 77% of murders nationwide in 2020. In the same report, COVID-19 was frequently referenced as a factor as more people experienced disruptions to their jobs and social lives. Americans’ mental health suffered, as well, and while people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of crime rather than perpetrators, certain illnesses (and a lack of treatment) are linked to criminal behavior.

The death penalty doesn’t address any of the possible roots of violent crime, including socioeconomic disruptions and mental health. Considering the cost of death penalty cases and their effect on the mental health of all those involved, one could argue that the death penalty contributes to conditions that lead to crime.

Want to learn more about the death penalty? Check out these articles.

#6. It’s biased against people experiencing poverty

The death penalty is not applied equally based on the crimes people commit. Certain groups are much more likely than others to receive a sentence. According to The International Federation of Human Rights, 95% of prisoners on death row in the United States come from “underprivileged backgrounds.” This doesn’t mean people experiencing poverty have an inherent urge to commit crimes. The criminalization of poverty increases a person’s risk for arrest, while the high cost of education, mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, and other assistance can push people into crime.

Once in the criminal justice system, those with money can pay for private lawyers, investigations, appeals, and other actions that help them avoid the death penalty. Those experiencing poverty have to rely on underfunded public defenders. Rather than punishing those who’ve committed the most severe crimes, the system punishes those with the fewest resources. If the death penalty disproportionately affects people experiencing poverty, it’s a deeply unfair and unjust system.

#7. It’s disproportionately hurting people with intellectual disabilities

People with intellectual disabilities face increased discrimination in the criminal justice system. They’re more likely to falsely confess to a crime, less equipped to work with lawyers, and more likely to experience harsh and violent treatment in prison. In the United States, jurisdictions using capital punishment are required to make sure that people with intellectual disabilities are not sentenced to death or executed. However, the standards for this determination are not consistent. According to The Innocence Project, at least 12 states use IQ scores to determine intellectual disability, a method many experts find problematic. Certain states also require clear evidence, while others only ask for a “preponderance of evidence.” This means a person could be considered intellectually disabled in one state and not in another.

Even if a person with intellectual disabilities is not ultimately killed by the state, the road to a new sentence is brutal. Raymond Riles, who was sent to death row in 1976, remained there for more than 45 years despite being repeatedly deemed mentally incompetent. In 2021, his death sentence was finally tossed and he was sentenced to life in prison. Riles’ story is just one of many where a person with intellectual disabilities is mistreated or executed.

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#8. It has a racial bias

In the United States, racial discrepancies are the biggest concern for many death penalty critics. According to research, 35% of people executed in the last 40 years have been Black, despite the fact Black Americans only make up 13% of the general population. When researchers take a closer look, they discover patterns of discrimination based on race. Virginia in particular has been scrutinized for its history, which has roots in early capital punishment laws. White defendants could only be executed for first-degree murder, while a variety of non-homicide crimes could get enslaved Black defendants executed. Between 1900-1969, Virginia executed 73 Black men for non-homicide crimes, while 185 were executed for murder. In that same time frame, no white person was executed for a non-homicide crime while 46 were executed for murder. In 2021, Virginia abolished the death penalty, citing the state’s history of racial disparities.

There’s also racial bias regarding what crimes receive death penalty sentences. According to a 2003 study, prosecutors were more likely to seek the death penalty when the victim was white, while they were less likely to pursue that verdict if the victim was Black. Another study, this one from 2007, reflected similar findings. Nationally, mountains of research show racial bias in how the death penalty is applied.

#9. It’s used as a tool of authoritarianism 

In theory, the death penalty is only meant to punish the most serious crimes, like murder. However, in places around the world, governments use executions freely and for non-lethal crimes. According to Amnesty International, recorded executions in 2022 hit their highest figure in five years. 883 people (which does not count the thousands possibly executed in China) were killed across 20 countries, which represents a 53% rise since 2021. Amnesty’s Secretary General says almost 40% of all known executions are for drug-related offenses, while in Iran, people were executed for protesting the regime. Because the governments still using the death penalty often hide their numbers, there are likely more executions not on the record.

It’s clear many governments inflicting the death penalty are not interested in justice, but rather in suppression and control. By using the death penalty arbitrarily, authorities set shifting definitions for what’s “unacceptable” in society and what’s an appropriate punishment. It makes citizens fearful and violates their human rights. As long the death penalty is legal, it has the potential to be abused for a government’s own purposes.

#10. It can’t be reversed in light of new evidence or errors

What makes the death penalty distinct from life in prison is that the judgment can’t be reversed if new evidence is discovered. It’s a disturbingly frequent occurrence. In 2000, Professor James Liebman from Columbia Law School released a study examining every capital conviction and appeal between 1973-1995. More than 90% of the states that gave death sentences had overall error rates of 52% or higher. 85% of states had error rates of 60% or higher. A more recent analysis from 2014 collected data from all death sentences between 1973-2004. They estimated that around 1 in 25 of those given a death sentence had likely been incorrectly convicted. While most of those who receive a death penalty sentence are eventually removed from death row to serve life imprisonment, innocent prisoners are never freed.

The Death Penalty Information Center maintains a database of exonerations, which means the person was acquitted or the charges were dismissed completely. Reasons include false confessions, insufficient evidence, perjury, official misconduct, and inadequate legal defense. Data like this exposes how flawed the criminal justice system is and how frequent errors are. It’s not a system we should trust with people’s lives.

The death penalty: a reading list 

Interested in learning more about the death penalty? Here’s where to start:

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption | Bryan Stevenson

This 2015 book (also made into a film) follows Bryan Stevenson as he establishes the Equal Justice Initiative. The book mostly focuses on Stevenson’s work for Water McMillian, a Black man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit.

Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate | Helen Prejean

Written in 1994, this book follows a Roman Catholic nun as she learns about the death penalty in America, gets to know everyone touched by the system, and works through her beliefs.

Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty | Maurice Chammah

In this award-winning 2022 book, Maurice Chammah tracks the story of capital punishment through stories of those with personal experience, like a prosecutor turned judge, a lawyer, executioners, and the prisoners living on death row. Chammah is a journalist and staff writer for The Marshall Project.

Right Here, Right Now: Life Stories from America’s Death Row | Ed. Lynden Harris

A collection of 99 first-person, anonymous accounts of men on death row in the United States, this 2021 book shines a light on the humanity of the people who’ve been sentenced to death. The book is organized into eight life stages from early childhood right to the moment a man faces his execution.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.