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Focus on the Death Penalty


The death penalty is perhaps the most controversial issue in the criminal justice system today. The United States is the only Western democracy that sentences common criminals to death, as other democracies decided decades ago that civilized nations should not execute anyone, even if the person took a human life. About two-thirds of Americans in national surveys favor the death penalty, with their reasons including the need for retribution (“an eye for an eye”), deterrence of potential murderers, and lower expenditure of public funds compared to a lifetime sentence. Social science evidence is irrelevant to the retribution argument, which is a matter for philosophy and theology, but it is relevant to many other aspects of the death debate. Taken together, the evidence on all these aspects yields a powerful case against the death penalty (Death Penalty Information Center, 2011). [20]

First, capital punishment does not deter homicide: Almost all studies on this issue fail to find a deterrent effect. An important reason for this stems from the nature of homicide. As discussed earlier, it is a relatively spontaneous, emotional crime. Most people who murder do not sit down beforehand to calculate their chances of being arrested, convicted, and executed. Instead they lash out. Premeditated murders do exist, but the people who commit them do not think they will get caught and so, once again, are not deterred by the potential for execution.

Second, the death penalty is racially discriminatory. While some studies find that African Americans are more likely than whites who commit similar homicides to receive the death penalty, the clearest evidence for racial discrimination involves the race of the victim: Homicides with white victims are more likely than those with African American victims to result in a death sentence (Paternoster & Brame, 2008). [21] Although this difference is not intended, it suggests that the criminal justice system values white lives more than African American lives.

Third, many people have been mistakenly convicted of capital offenses, raising the possibility of wrongful executions. Sometimes defendants are convicted out of honest errors, and sometimes they are convicted because the police and/or prosecution fabricated evidence or engaged in other legal misconduct. Whatever their source, wrongful convictions of capital offenses raise the ugly possibility that a defendant will be executed even though he was actually innocent of any capital crime. During the past four decades, more than 130 people have been released from death row after DNA or other evidence cast serious doubt on their guilt. In March 2011, Illinois abolished capital punishment, partly because of concern over the possibility of wrongful executions. As the Illinois governor summarized his reasons for signing the legislative bill to abolish the death penalty, “Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it” (Schwartz & Fitzsimmons, 2011:A18). [22]

Fourth, executions are expensive. Keeping a murderer in prison for life costs about $1 million in current dollars (say 40 years at $25,000 per year), while the average death sentence costs the state about $2 million to $3 million in legal expenses.

This diverse body of evidence leads most criminologists to oppose the death penalty. In 1989, the American Society of Criminology adopted this official policy position on capital punishment: “Be it resolved that because social science research has demonstrated the death penalty to be racist in application and social science research has found no consistent evidence of crime deterrence through execution, The American Society of Criminology publicly condemns this form of punishment, and urges its members to use their professional skills in legislatures and courts to seek a speedy abolition of this form of punishment.”




KEY TAKEAWAYS


  • Partly because the police often fear for their lives, they tend to have a “working personality” that is authoritarian and suspicious. Police corruption and use of undue force remain significant problems in many police departments.

  • Although criminal defendants have the right to counsel, the legal representation of such defendants, most of whom are poor or near poor, is very inadequate.

  • Prisons are squalid places, and incarceration has not been shown to reduce crime in an effective or cost-efficient manner.

  • Most criminologists agree that capital punishment does not deter homicide, and they worry about racial discrimination in the use of the death penalty and about the possibility of wrongful executions.



FOR YOUR REVIEW


  1. Have you ever had an encounter with a police officer? If so, how would you describe the officer’s personality? Was it similar to what is described in the text?

  2. The text argues that improvement in prison conditions would help reduce the probability of reoffending after inmates leave prison. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Explain your answer.

[1] Skolnick, J. H. (1994). Justice without trial: Law enforcement in democratic society (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Macmillan.

[2] Dempsey, J. S., & Forst, L. S. (2012). An introduction to policing (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

[3] Reiss, A. J., Jr. (1980). Officer violations of the law. In R. J. Lundman (Ed.), Police behavior: A sociological perspective (pp. 253–272). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[4] Maas, P. (1973). Serpico. New York, NY: Viking Press.

[5] Glover, S., & Lait, M. (2000, February 10). Police in secret group broke law routinely, transcripts say. The Los Angeles Times, p. A1.

[6] Eith, C., & Durose, M. R. (2011). Contacts between police and the public, 2008. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

[7] Walker, S. (2011). Sense and nonsense about crime, drugs, and communities: A policy guide (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

[8] Mastrofski, S. D., Weisburd, D., & Braga, A. A. (2010). Rethinking policing: The policy implications of hot spots of crime. In N. A. Frost, J. D. Freilich & T. R. Clear (Eds.),Contemporary issues in criminal justice policy (pp. 251–264). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

[9] Downie, L., Jr. (1972). Justice denied: The case for reform of the courts. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books.

[10] Strick, A. (1978). Injustice for all. New York, NY: Penguin.

[11] Barkan, S. E. (1996). The social science significance of the O. J. Simpson case. In G. Barak (Ed.), Representing O. J.: Murder, criminal justice and mass culture (pp. 36–42). Albany, NY: Harrow and Heston.

[12] Hakim, D. (2006, June 29). Judge urges state control of legal aid for the poor. New York Times, p. B1.

[13] Oppel, R. A., Jr. (2011, September 26). Sentencing shift gives new leverage to prosecutors. New York Times, p. A1.

[14] Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York, NY: New Press.

[15] Durlauf, S. N., & Nagin, D. S. (2011). Imprisonment and crime: Can both be reduced?Criminology & Public Policy, 10, 13–54.

[16] Welsh, B. C., & Farrington, D. P. (Eds.). (2007). Preventing Crime: What works for children, offenders, victims and places. New York, NY: Springer.

[17] Durlauf, S. N., & Nagin, D. S. (2011). Imprisonment and crime: Can both be reduced?Criminology & Public Policy, 10, 13–54.

[18] Kappeler, V. E., & Potter, G. W. (2005). The mythology of crime and criminal justice (4th ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

[19] Bellafante, G. (2005, March 9). Recipe for a second chance. New York Times, p. F1; Greenhouse, S. (2011, January 25). States help ex-inmates find jobs. New York Times, p. B1; Richardson, L. (2004, July 13). Defending the despised, and loving to do so. New York Times, p. B2.

[20] Death Penalty Information Center. (2011). Facts about the death penalty. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf.

[21] Paternoster, R., & Brame, R. (2008). Reassessing race disparities in Maryland capital cases. Criminology, 46, 971–1007.

[22] Schwartz, J., & Fitzsimmons, E. G. (2011, March 10). Illinois governor signs capital punishment ban. New York Times, p. A18.


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