Death penalty is defined as the process of killing an individual who has committed a crime by a judicial process (Watson, 2003); it is also called capital punishment or execution. Crimes which are punishable by death penalty as explained by Watson (2003) are regarded as capital offenses or capital crimes. The term capital punishment originated from the Latin word, capitalis which refers to punishment of an individual involving removal of the head (Philbin, 2009). It reflects the mode of execution which was practiced in the past involving the removal of the head as a method of killing. Capital punishment of death penalty was in the past very common. However, there has been a trend towards moving away from the death penalty to other types of penalty for those people who have committed capital offenses. Currently, only fifty eight countries practice the death penalty. About ninety five countries have abolished the death penalty completely and thus do not exist in their legal systems as a punitive measure. The rest of the countries in the world have not practiced the death penalty in the last ten years although it still exists in their legal systems as a punitive measure for those who commit capital crimes.
According to Watson (2003), people who commit capital offenses have been the major target of death penalty. However, the death penalty has also been used in the punishment of people who tend to politically antagonize the government of the head of the state. It has been used as a political tool to eliminate those who the governments of some countries think they are a threat to their survival. Although the purpose of the death penalty or capital punishment was for those who commit grave concerns, heads of governments and states have used it as a way of taming their opponents and thus eliminating the opposition. This has advanced the problem of poor leadership in such countries. It is very common in African and some Asian countries where autocratic systems exist. Most targeted are the people who are vocal against the governments including opposition crusaders, writers, preachers among others.
However, as Philbin (2009) explains, in other places, the capital punishment is reserved for capital offenses such as people who commit murder and they need to b e executed for the purpose of the victims of the diseased. The relatives of the deceased will be unhappy to see someone who killed the member of their kin enjoying life while their kin is dead. In the military, it is part of their justice systems. On the other hand, it is explained by Ellis (2008) that military courts use this type of punishment in an effort to ensure that there is discipline within the force. Offenses such as the use of military machinery to carry out a coup are punished by death penalty in most of the countries. Others crimes such as rape are considered as capital offenses in most of the countries and thus punishable by death sentence. In some cultures like in Islamic law, people who commit some social crimes like adultery are punished by stoning to death, a crude form of capital punishment. In countries like China, human and drug trafficking are part of the capital offenses.
Justifications for Death Penalty
There are several theories of justification of the existence of death penalty. These theories explain why some of the countries are still supporting the punishment of capital offenses by a death penalty. They include the following: incapacitation, retribution and deterrence.
This theory stipulates that the death sentence is important for capital crimes so that it can take away the ability of the individual to commit such a crime again (Ellis, 2008). By executing the criminal, the criminal cannot repeat the crime. It will be impossible for the criminal to commit the offense again. According to this theory, death penalty is very important in the society as there will be decrease in crimes involving the capital offenses since the removal of such criminals reduces the number of people likely to commit the crime again. There are several ways of incapacitation of a criminal. First, the criminal can be taken through probation so as to rehabilitate him or her. He can also be taken through incarceration. However, the best way to incapacitate a criminal who has committed grave crimes is by death penalty. This will be a very sure way of ensuring that the criminal cannot commit the same crime again in the future and thus saving the lives of other innocent people in the society (Ellis, 2008).
As compared to death punishment, life sentence is less effective in the achieving of the objective of incapacitation of those who commit capital crimes. In some cases, people who have been convicted of committing capital offenses and put on life imprisonment can escape and go and commit the same crime. This returns very dangerous people to the society who has committed grave crimes and are still able to commit the same crimes. The legal system in such a case has not been effective in incapacitating such individuals. However, with death sentence, an individual is not able to escape and go and cause more harm to the society. The legal system effectively makes such a person unable to commit such a crime in the future and thus protecting the society (Watson, 2003).
There have however been arguments that incapacitation does not lead to decrease in crime in the society. On the same note, countries which let the murder criminals out of prisons after some years in prison do not record an increase in crime. The question is, is death sentence important in reducing crime? Death sentence is only applied on a few of the criminals who have been involved in the capital offenses. Some criminals who have committed such offenses are let the hook because of their ability to get very good defense lawyers or because of lack of evidence or even because of corruption. Only a small number of those who commit capital offenses are put on death punishments. This means that majority of the criminals are still in the society and the ones executed form only a small percentage of those who are guilty. It therefore beats logic by killing a few people who commit such crimes while leaving most of them walking freely in the society (Watson, 2003).
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If the system was very just and identifies all those who are involved in the capital crimes, it would have some meaning to kill them through the justice system. However, this is not the case and those who are executed form only a small percentage of the guilty ones. There are also cases where the real murderers are let the hook and innocent people are given the capital punishment. In addition, there is the claim that when the criminals go through the justice system for some time, they reform and are not able to commit the same crimes. This makes the role of incapacitation insignificant in combating crime. It has been established that the countries which allow the prisoners to go home after some duration of stay in jail for rehabilitation do not report an increase in crime after they release the former convicts of capital offenses.
This makes the role of incapacitation very useless in preventing crime in the society. Previously, traditional societies used to have this as a reason for the death sentence since the society believed that it is the only way of reducing crime. They believed that those who have committed the offence will definitely commit it again in the future. Therefore, they needed to remove those who have committed such an offense for fear of them repeating the same mistake. However, in the current societies, jails have been established with rehabilitation as one of their major roles. In jails, it is believed that the jailed people will realize that they did something wrong and that they should not repeat it. Thus, is the prisoners are killed to ensure they do not repeat the offense; the jails are useless (Watson, 2003).
If the main purpose for capital punishment is to make the individual unable to commit the same crime, then, other punishments like life imprisonments can take over its functions. Life imprisonment ensures that the convict stays in jail throughout his or her life. During this time, the individual is not able to move out and commit the same crime. The individuals who have committed capital crimes are isolated and put on life sentence where they will be guarded by the prison warders, ensuring that they do not go back to the society. This is cheaper and more socially accepted than the death sentence. It will also give the person convicted of capital punishment the time to appeal and if he or she was not guilty, he or she can be released and go back to the society. This is not the case with the death sentence where the person cannot get a reverse order if he or she has been executed.
According to Watson (2003), this theory also justifies capital punishment. It has two meanings. First, it can mean the emotional response which is aimed at making the people equal. The second is aimed at making a wrong right. The first aim, making the people equal is more of a private objective than a public objective while the second aim, making a wrong right is more of public aim than a private aim. This theory stipulates that the offender must receive a payment for his or her mistakes. The capital punishment is meant to make the person who committed the capital offense pay for his or her mistake by the same being applied. This is more of an emotional pointy of view in which the people who lost their loved ones secondary to murder will be satisfied by the person who killed their relative executed. It is more of personal objective as compared to the other aim of capital punishment in which the society’s main aim is to make a wrong right.
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In most of the public opinions regarding the death penalty, retribution has been regarded as the most cited as to why people favor the capital punishment. Some people have gone ahead to claim that a life should be paid for a life. Thus, if a person killed, then he or she should be killed thus the origin of capital punishment. In general, death penalty is meant to make the person who committed a crime face the same consequence as the person who was killed. This is a form of natural justice in which the people will want someone to feel the same thing as his or her victim felt. However, does this reduce crime? That is the most important question in this case. The problem with this system is that it is an emotional feeling which the relatives of the person who has been murdered want to feel good after the person who killed their relative is killed. Their main objective is not to have the reduction in crime in the society. They want the person done the same way as he or she did to their beloved one and thus eases their emotions towards that situation (Watson, 2003).
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However, very few people who commit the capital crimes receive the death penalty. Thus, the people who killed someone’s relative are still walking in the streets without anyone punishing them. To add on this, some of the people who are put on death sentence are not the same people who killed the person. It thus makes it impossible to achieve justice for all the people. In most times, corporate offenders are left the hook; they continue enjoying life while the members of the kin of the murdered person remain in pain. Since the government is not in place to ensure that the emotions of different people are satisfied, its intentions should be based on reason and not emotions. The legal system should view the situation from a point of view which is not influence by emotions. Leaders are those people who do not act on their emotions but act on reason. Thus, the government should try to avoid actions which are based on emotions (Watson, 2003).
Since murderers are executed by the use of injections which are lethal, they do not in reality feel the same pain which the person who was murdered felt. The lethal injection makes them have an easy death without first being traumatized and then killed. This is the current trend in the world. Therefore, the murderer will definitely have a better death than his or her victim which indicates that there murderer did not feel exactly what the victim felt. On the same note, other people who commit other crimes, do they get the same punishment as the crime they committed? For example, if a person steals a car from another person, does the legal system allow the person whose car was stolen to steal the offender’s car in an effort to make them equal? This is not the case. The legal system does not allow such things to happen. Thus, why should those who commit capital offenses is punished by being killed as they killed? This theory advocates for the rule of jungle law in which a person receives a punishment which is equivalent to what he or she did. It is not the objective of finishing crime in the society which drives the capital punishment but it’s more of emotional satisfaction (Philbin, 2009).
The killing of a person who killed the other does not make the killed person come back to life. The person who died is unable to come back to living whether his or her killer has been killed or not. Therefore, the people cannot receive back their person after a criminal has received a death penalty. As it has always been said, two wrongs do not make a right. Therefore, killing a person because he killed does not in any way bring justice to the victim. It is more of revenging than achieving justice. It is therefore not a good system to be used by the justice system.
This is the last theory of death penalty. It has two meanings; Special and General Deterrence (Watson, 2003). The specific special deterrence is aimed at the creation of fear within the person who wants to commit a crime so that he or she can desist from committing such a crime. He or she will not be able to commit another crime because of the fear which has been created upon him or her by the punishment. General deterrence is aimed at creating fear in the society. All the members of the society cannot commit that crime because they are scared of the repercussions. Thus capital punishment is administered to the offender not for the purpose of him or her committing the offence but for the rest of the members of the society not to commit the same mistake. The death penalty is not a specific deterrent. This is because the person has died and he or she cannot learn from his or her mistakes. The death penalty makes the person not able to change his character. Other penalties such as imprisonment for sometime make the offender learn from his or her mistakes and when he or she returns to the society, he cannot repeat the mistakes as he fears the repeat of the punishment.
As explained sometime back by Bledsoe (1998), the death penalty cause deterrence in the society alone and not in the individual who was involved in the crime. This also does not make sense. Consider a case where a child pees on the floor. The child is punished to ensure that he or she does not repeat the mistake again. The main objective of punishment is to make sure an individual does not repeat the same mistake. In that case, does killing an individual make him or her not repeat the mistake? Does it make the person fear from his or her mistakes? The answer is definitely no. killing an individual only serves to make the rest of the members of the society not do the same mistake. This makes the person who has been executed be like a sacrifice for the rest of the members of the society to learn. Capital punishment serves the purpose of making the rest of the members of the society more disciplined while the offender is not given an opportunity to reform and change his or her behavior (Bledsoe, 1998). Therefore, the death penalty does not deter the accused. It has not also been proved that it deters the rest of the members of the society from committing such crimes.
In conclusion about the theories of death penalty, none of them explains sufficiently on why the death penalty should be practiced. The reasons which are given for the execution are not valid. The death penalty is guided more by the emotional feelings of the relatives of a person who has been killed and the wish to have the person who committed a certain crime feel the same pain. It is also aimed at making the rest of the members of the society develop some fear for the committing of the capital crimes. This is not the case since people still commit capital crimes after they have seen one of their own being sentenced to death. The theory of incapacitation also does not aid in the reduction of crime as only a few of the people who commit capital crimes get death sentence and the rest are left in the society and can commit the same crimes.