Why the Death Penalty is Necessary
Updated: Jul 25
The death penalty has, for a few decades now, become somewhat of a taboo topic. In most countries where the death penalty has been outlawed, it has usually been followed by a period in which politicians refuse to even discuss its implementation, actively ignoring the issue and even being skeptical of giving the decision back to the people, fearful that a referendum could institute the death penalty once more. Furthermore, the model in which the death penalty is applied in some of the countries where it is yet to be outlawed could be argued to be flawed. In the grand scheme of things, is a death penalty a necessity? And if so, under what circumstances?
In my opinion, in order to answer this question, it is first necessary to assess the criminal justice system and the purpose that it serves. While there has been a perpetual debate on this and if its purpose should be more rehabilitative than punitive or the other way around, one clear undisputed purpose would be to help the victim of a crime attain full reimbursement of any value lost, be it in a financial, emotional, mental or physical manner.
There are plenty of ways of doing this, be it through fines or giving the culprit of a crime a sentence that is in some ways equivalent to the value that he has taken away from someone. To put it short, the main purpose of criminal justice is justice.
If someone is murdered, I would be tempted to make the case that a twenty five year sentence in jail is not equivalent to the crime committed, for the criminal will be out of jail after that period (or maybe even less if an appeal is made) but the victim, by then, will still be dead. The same case can be made for sexual assault victims, for the crime they have suffered causes damage that goes above and beyond what any jail sentence could ever claim to have served as appropriate justice.
In summary, there are crimes that go beyond relative property or personal damage (be it petty theft, drug dealing or any other sort of minor criminal behavior) and are so violent and degrading to the human condition (murder, rape, genocide, mutilation) that the only possible source of justice, or equal retribution, would be to kill whoever was the perpetrator.
However, it is not as simple as pointing out that justice has a retributive aspect to it. Most people tend to have a moral problem with the death penalty, making the case that the executioner has just committed a crime of the same nature as the person who has just been executed. This is a very valid argument, but it still does not disavow the existence of a sentence to imprison someone for life. Sentencing someone for life, while avoiding the moral dilemma of the execution, is not an ideal scenario, seeing as prisons, as most tend to be financed by governments, are funded by the people who now, indirectly or not, have to be the ones paying the bill for someone who has damaged the social fabric. With most criminals, they can still be rehabilitated and thus contribute to society; if someone is in jail for life, this is no longer a possibility.
Other issues regarding a nation’s culture and religion could also influence their views on instituting a death penalty. Furthermore, executions in our modern days would be carried out by doctors applying the lethal injection, which brings up another moral dilemma, that of the doctor who has promised to protect human life now taking one. This particular problem brings a plethora of other moral issues worthy of their own article and is to be dissected further.
An example from the US
The United States is one of the only Western countries who still have the death penalty for the most serious crimes. Unfortunately, they also provide an example of the issues that its implementation creates, as criminals on death row wait for several years for their execution, amongst constant and never-ending appeals. While it is complicated to prove innocence or culpability in any case, with DNA testing and the plethora of ways in which we have to conduct an investigation these days, there should be a limited amount of appeals in cases in which the evidence is undeniable.
If the death penalty is, in fact, implemented, criminals should not have to wait long years on death row. It is a detriment both to themselves and the victim and its family/close ones, not to mention the state and thus society at large. Having so many people on death row for so long, to the point in which some end up dying a natural death, beats the purpose of the existence of the death penalty. To have so many people waiting for appeals and waiting to be executed is something that must be avoided, and thus brings two major necessities; for the death penalty to be applied in very restrictive circumstances, and for justice to be swift and assertive, limiting a number of possible appeals whenever it is reasonable to do so.
In summary, there is a clear case to be made in favor of the existence of the death penalty, or at the very least of a sentence of life in prison. The moral debates to have around it, however, are plentiful and relevant to the discussion. While I have made the case that the main goal of justice must be to serve justice, that philosophy also allows me to entertain the thought that it is better to have a criminal out in the street than to convict an innocent, meaning that a death sentence must only be attributed whenever the evidence is clear and undeniable. The death penalty is of use to civil society, yes. And it should always be a possibility in criminal justice. But that which attributes it true usefulness, is if it is applied correctly.