The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution reads: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted,” thus barring the federal government from handing out sentences that are inappropriate for the crime committed as well as punishments that are “barbaric,” as Professor John F. Stinneford interprets it (constitutioncenter.org). Yet, the death penalty remains a method of punishment criminals are often convicted of on both the state and federal level, and contradicts this key clause of the Constitution. While undermining the written foundation of the nation, capital punishment also goes against any shred of equitiability, morality, and financial reasonability, and therefore violates the principles of justice.
The modern use of the death penalty violates two key criteria of the Eighth Amendment. Stinneford stated, “If a punishment is significantly harsher than punishments traditionally given for the same or similar crimes, it is cruel and unusual, even though the same punishment might be acceptable for other crimes” (constitutioncenter.org). Yet, the death penalty has been handed out to convicted people who were very likely innocent. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “A study published in the Stanford Law Review documents 350 capital convictions in [the 1900s], in which it was later proven that the convict had not committed the crime. Of those, 25 convicts were executed while others spent decades of their lives in prison” (aclu.org). This means that, for far too many, death was the price of innocence. When it cannot be proven beyond doubt that one committed a crime as serious as murder, the death of someone at the hand of the government cannot be justified.
Not only is the death penalty unusually distributed on the basis of the crime comitted, it is also disproportionatly handed to convicted people of color, thickening its injustice. According to the Office of Governor Gavin Newsom, “The death penalty is unevenly and unfairly applied to people of color, people with mental disabilities, and people who cannot afford costly legal representation. More than six in ten people on California’s death row are people of color” (gov.ca.gov). This is reflected on the national scale, with the American Civil Liberties Union stating, “From 1995-2000… 72 percent of [all federal] cases approved for death penalty prosecution involved minority defendants” (aclu.org), conveying injustice in the allocation of the sentence. If capital punishment cannot be distributed equitably, then it should not be distributed at all.
Although an alarming amount of people died either wrongfully or inappropriately at the hand of the government, no one, guilty or not, should die in such a way. Justifying this punishment using an “eye-for-an-eye” punitive system makes the government no better than those who actually commit violent crimes. Continuing their sentences can bring guilty incarcerated people in one of two directions: they can spend the rest of their lives in prison, unable to make progress and ultimately suffer long, drawn-out fates, or rehabilitate to right their wrongs and become productive members of society. As Junior Elisa Delle Monache stated, “[A swift death] wouldn’t let the criminal feel how the victim felt, but if they stayed in a maximum-security prison for life (which could be more than 70 years), they would spend it reflecting on their actions.” Either way, execution does not seem like a reasonable answer.
The consequences of the death penalty are not reserved for those who face the punishment; capital punishment impacts all Americans, primarily in the exhaustive cost that an incarcerated person on death row puts on the punitive system. According to a study done by the Department of Justice, defending death penalty cases costs approximately eight times as much as defending similar cases in which the death penalty was not sought (ballotpedia.com). Beyond even the deplorable moral reasoning needed to justify the punishment, the cost of the death penalty displays just how wasteful and inefficient this practice is.
Regardless of philosophical, moral, and financial reservations, some may advocate for the death penalty, claiming that it is an effective deterrent to violent crime. The social contract theory of government states that the state may infringe upon certain freedoms in order to protect the whole of its citizenry. The death penalty may therefore be seen as a way for a nation to deprive one of his/her life (a natural right, as written in the Declaration of Independence) to defend others against violence and chaos. However, the punishment has proven to be ineffective in deterring violent crime. According to a nonprofit concerned with the analysis of the death penalty, between 2000-2010, the murder rate in states that distributed the death penalty was 25-46 percent higher than states without the death penalty (deathpenaltyinfo.org). Despite the attempt to limit violent crime, capital punishment has proven to not only be futile in protecting civilians, but more so conveys an overstep of the government’s power against its citizens.
Despite its common use in America’s justice system, the death penalty only promotes injustice. It contradicts the values of any reasonable person, and the ideals that the nation is based upon. Ultimately, the punishment undermines the principles of the American government and has emphasized the justice system’s disregard for humanity, sense, and fairness.