The Death Penalty for Juveniles and Adults: an Argument on Ethics, Humanity, and Legality

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Table of Contents

  • An Overview on the Death Penalty
  • Why the Death Penalty Should be Resurrected
  • Arguments against the Death Penalty
  • Conclusion

Say someone broke into your home and took all of your worldly possessions, all while you were sleeping soundly in the next room. Would they deserve death under the law? How about if they were driving, and intentionally slammed into your loved one’s vehicle, killing them on impact? Now, should they be put to death, or should they serve a life sentence instead? This debate is one of the biggest in the criminal justice sector of our society, and has become a big issue for the public. Some argue completely against the implementation of the death penalty, claiming inhumanity and unfair treatment of those convicted. Others say it should only be utilized for the most serious of crimes, those resulting in sexual assault or death of the victim. In this paper, I will explain the justifications of using the death penalty, its benefits to the victims and their families, and how it has and will continue to benefit our society.

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An Overview on the Death Penalty

The death penalty came to our country with the European colonization in the 16th century, but the use of the death penalty dates back through the fifth century B.C., having been used in the Roman law of the Twelve Tablets (DPIC, 2012). The methods used in those days included crucifixion, impalement, beatings, drowning, and burning at the stake. Society then moved through the seventh century B.C., bringing into effect the Draconian Code of Athens, “which made death the only punishment for all crimes,” and finally, in the eighteenth century B.C., the Code of King Hammurabi, which “codified the death penalty for 25 different crimes” (DPIC, 2012). Over the years, the role the death penalty has played in society has changed. For example, in the 10th century, the preferred method of execution changed from those named above to hanging, but in the next century, William the Conqueror would not permit people to be “hanged or otherwise executed for any crime, except in times of war” (DPIC, 2012). Throughout history, this inability to establish permanent laws dictating exactly when and how the death penalty can be implemented has caused the public and legislature alike to disagree over the matter.

Specific to the United States, utilization of the death penalty has varied from state to state and decade to decade. The first execution in the new colonies occurred in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608, after Captain George Kendall was accused of being a spy for Spain. About 150 years later, in 1767, Cesare Beccaria wrote his infamous essay, On Crimes and Punishment, spurring the first abolitionist movements. In the essay, Beccaria argued that there was “no justification for the state’s taking of a life” (DPIC, 2012). Beccaria’s essay influenced many abolitionists throughout time, one of those being Thomas Jefferson, who first made the issue public by introducing reforms to Virginia’s laws regarding the death penalty. In the early to mid-nineteenth century, abolitionist movements took hold of the northeast portion of the United States, and mass reforms began to take place. Some states kept capital punishment for all crimes, while most reformed their laws to only execute for capital crimes. By 1963, all states had moved from mandatory death penalty sentencing to more discretionary laws.

To bring to light the turbulence in the retention of death penalty laws, take a look at the period between the early 1900’s and today. In the period between 1907 and 1917, six states completely outlawed the death penalty. By 1920, fear of revolution and repercussions of entering World War One made five out of those six states re-enact the death penalty. From the 1920’s to the 1940’s, there was a surge in executions, the bulk of which were in the 1930’s, due in part to the Great Depression and Prohibition. The 1950’s, however, brought a big change. Most states abolished or limited the death penalty, and in 1966 support of the death penalty reached an all-time low, hitting only 42 percent (DPIC, 2012). From the 1970’s to today, there were many challenges of the death penalty in court. These court decisions brought massive reform, only to be overturned after the next set of elections. Today, we still maintain capital punishment here in the United States, although there are restrictions. In 1986, the court case of Ford v. Wainwright banned execution of the mentally ill and required a screening process as part of the court proceedings, and in 2005, the case of Roper v. Simmons “declared the practice of executing defendants whose crimes were committed as juveniles unconstitutional” (DPIC, 2012). These fluctuations in support for the death penalty have resulted in confusion about both the benefits and disadvantages of the death penalty, as well as making the consequences for punishments unclear.

Why the Death Penalty Should be Resurrected

The idea that the consequence of death deters crime holds as true today as it did back in the fifth century, when the Romans started incorporating it into their legal system. Think about it—if the penalty for stealing was death, would you steal? According to Michael Radelet, author of “Deterrence and the Death Penalty: The Views of the Experts,” economist Isaac Ehrlic estimated that “each execution between 1933 and 1969 had prevented seven to eight homicides” (Radelet, 1996). While this number is disputed, the fact remains that hundreds of innocent people could have been saved from gruesome, early demises had we executed every killer after his or her first offense. In terms of deterrence, Michael Bales put it simply; “Imposing the death penalty certainly ends the lives of murderers, but it probably saves innocent lives. Failure to use the death penalty certainly saves the lives of murderers but probably costs innocent victims their lives” (Bayles, 1991).

Another benefit of the death penalty to take into account is the retributive factor. The Code of Hammurabi, written in the 18th century, stated, “The ruling principle was lex talionis. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, limb for limb was the penalty” (Johns, n.d.). Imagine if your loved one was killed in an intentional, brutal attack. You’re filled with rage, sorrow, and have a need for revenge. Would that need be more satisfied by seeing the killer locked up for life, enjoying three hot meals a day, a bed to sleep in, and better healthcare than the public, or seeing the killer experience death for themselves at the hands of justice? The utilization of the death penalty not only offers this retribution to the family of the victim, but it can also offer peace of mind that the murderer will never be released into civilization on parole or escape from prison. Best of all, it ensures that no one will ever suffer at the hands of the killer again.

Another good reason to respond to capital offenses with the death penalty goes hand in hand with deterrence—to make a public example of the offender to show that these crimes will not be tolerated. Supporters of the death penalty believe that “murder is morally wrong and evil, and as a society, we are required to respond” (Miller, 1999). There are numbers out there that try to disprove the fact that the death penalty deters crime; however, if we as a society crack down on these crimes and start handing out the punishments with consistency, deterrence effectiveness will rise significantly.

With all of that in mind, there is one more major supporter of the death penalty— the Old Testament of the Bible. Deuteronomy 32:35 states, “Vengeance is mine, and retribution, in due time their foot will slip; for the day of their calamity is near, and the impending things are hastening upon them” (Moses, n.d.). This supports the retributive factor of the death penalty, as well as the idea that people are entitled to get vengeance for loved ones who have had capital crimes committed against them. Another verse in the Bible supports taking vengeance upon one’s enemy. Deuteronomy 32:41 reiterates that point, stating, “If I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand takes hold on judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries and will repay those who hate me” (Moses, n.d.). The Old Testament clearly states that vengeance is tolerable, and indeed necessary, for peace to exist.

Arguments against the Death Penalty

The first argument heard against the death penalty usually says something along the lines of “In-humaneness rules out justification” (Davis, 1990). Most people who argue against the death penalty say that it is inhumane; causing intense pain to whomever is sentenced to it. They also claim that it isn’t fair to the family of the criminal to condemn him or her to death. As Jeffrey Reiman puts it in his article, “The Death Penalty, Deterrence, and Horribleness,” the typical viewpoint of abolitionists tends to be that “unless capital punishment was necessary to protect society against harm, it should be abolished by modern states in order to promote the progress of civilization” (Reiman, 1990). The inhumanity argument tends to center around the process of death, and the amount of pain these murderers, rapists, and terrorists are put through to achieve the penalty. Abolitionists tend to forget that the criminals are offered copious amounts of pain killers and anesthetics, and feel virtually no pain during death. They also forget the amount of suffering these criminals have subjected their victims to. Another point brought up by those against the use of the death penalty is that we as humans are not allowed to “play God.” While, for the most part, I agree with that idea, wouldn’t euthanizing suffering animals and “pulling the plug,” so to speak, also be put into that category? So if we were to outlaw the death penalty, we would have to throw those two into the bill as well, because they also fall into the category of “manipulating life.” So far, the inhumanity argument isn’t holding up, but there are other reasons people want the death penalty abolished.

The death penalty, until recently, was extended not only to adults but to those who committed capital crimes as juveniles, as well as mentally ill individuals. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 22 criminals were executed between 1976 and 2005 for crimes committed as juveniles (DPIC, 2012). The landmark case of Roper v. Simmons struck down using the death penalty for juveniles in 2005. Diagnosing those with mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities has never been an exact science, so execution of those with subtle or well-hidden cases has been a common practice over the years. However, in 2002, “the Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute defendants with mental retardation,” but execution of those with severe mental illnesses, given that they’ve committed a violent, capital crime, is still legal (DPIC, 2012). Abolitionists are against this practice for obvious reasons, most of which center around rehabilitation instead of death for those with mental disabilities or illnesses.

Another point brought up by abolitionists, which can be agreed upon by parties from both sides of the spectrum, is that the number of executions of those wrongfully convicted is staggering. “Since 1973, over 130 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence” (DPIC, 2012). That’s 130 people that have waited for death that they did not deserve. Even with the progression of DNA and other scientific technology, we are not exact when convicting people to death. “From 2000-2011, there has been an average of 5 exonerations per year” (DPIC, 2012). So what does this mean for people who have already been put to death, and may have been innocent? This is a very good argument to avoid the death penalty for those whose guilt isn’t 100% beyond a reasonable doubt.

Cost is the last reason I will mention as a reason to avoid the death penalty. While there are millions of different numbers out there about costs of the death penalty versus cost of life imprisonment, there are many factors to take in to account. Most numbers are shaped to meet the point of view brought up by whoever is collecting the information, at least in the case of pro-death versus abolitionists. But in any case, when calculating costs of the death sentence, we should take into account these variables: pre-trial and trial costs, appeals and state habeas corpus petition costs, costs of federal habeas corpus appeals, and costs of incarceration on death row. Costs to take into account for a prisoner sentenced to life are: meal costs, medical care costs, drug treatment costs, mental treatment costs, uniform costs, heat and electric costs, pay while working in a prison setting, appeal costs, probation/parole costs, if they are eligible, and more. When calculating costs of life incarceration, most people tend to “forget” that prisoners get old, and when they get old, they cost about four times as more to take care of than a young, healthy prisoner, and that must be taken into account as well.


The pros and cons of the death penalty are all convincing, in their own ways. However, one must keep in mind the accountability of some of these arguments and numbers and base their decision on factors that are most important, such as costs, humanity, practicality, and retributivism. Most of all, the decision must be based on what you think is right or wrong. In my mind, implementation of the death penalty may be the only way to keep capital crimes to a minimum, and to provide a consequence to crimes that are ridiculously heinous. Of course, there should be restrictions as mentioned above; hard, undeniable proof, healthy mental status, must be an adult, and must have committed a crime such as rape, murder, any capital crime, or pedophilia with an actual human victim. Abolitionists will argue that sentencing death to a capital criminal is inhumane, but is it not necessary, in order to keep society at peace, to put to death those that have done the same to others?

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