Should we abolish the death penalty?

On July 3 the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, called on all member states to abolish the death penalty.

The worldwide trend is away from the death penalty. In 2000, 31 countries carried out an execution. In 2011, 20 countries did. According to Mr. Ban, about 150 countries have either abolished the death penalty or are no longer practicing it.

But almost a third of the world’s nations still have the death penalty. China executes hundreds if not thousands of people a year, more than all other countries combined. In 2011 the countries other than China with the most executions were Iran  (360), Saudi Arabia (82), Iraq (68), and the United States (43). The United States is the only G-8 country with the death penalty. In North America and Europe only one other country, Belarus, has the death penalty.

However, the trend in the United States is away from the death penalty. In 2000, 38 states had the death penalty. In 2012, 34 states have it. In 2000, 224 persons were sentenced to death in the United States. In 2011, 78 persons were sentenced to death. In 2000, 85 persons were executed in the United States. In 2011, 43 persons were executed (for the statistics in these two paragraphs, see here).

Last year a thoughtful political leader in my state told me that the death penalty is something about which good people differ. I agree. There are thoughtful and honorable people on both sides of this issue, and both groups have reasons for their convictions.

Those who support the death penalty say that some people do things so awful that they deserve to die. They point out that executing these people prevents them from harming anyone else. They believe that execution is a deterrent which reduces the incidence of violent crimes in society. They think that executing criminals provides comfort to the victims of violent crimes and to their families and loved ones. Some Christians believe that the Bible teaches that we should execute criminals.

Even though good, thoughtful people sincerely believe these things, I remain unconvinced.

For example, I understand that some people do things so awful that, if society follows the understanding of justice known as lex talionis (“life for life,” Exodus 21:23-25), they deserve to die. But those laws describe the extent to which society may go, not the extent to which it must go. It is all right for society to treat people better than they deserve. God does that with us all. It’s called grace.

It’s true that executing a criminal prevents the criminal from killing again. But that can be achieved with imprisonment, too.

There is no convincing evidence that the death penalty serves as a deterrent. A 2009 survey of 500 randomly chosen police chiefs–who ought to know–found that even though most of them support the death penalty, 57% of them think that it does not deter violence because most people who commit violent acts rarely consider the possible consequences of their violence.

While some people find comfort in the execution of those who murdered their loves ones, others do not. Some family members of murder victims work to abolish the death penalty.

On the other hand, I find the arguments of those who oppose the death penalty convincing.

One argument is that sometimes innocent people have been executed. This is almost certainly true.

Another is the presence of racial and economic  bias in the administration of capital punishment.

Another is the concern of social conservatives about giving government the authority to administer the ultimate punishment.

Another is the massive costs of administering the death penalty. Many people understandably assume that it is cheaper to execute murderers than to keep them imprisoned for life, but that is a mistake. For example, an exhaustive 2011 study of the death penalty system in California contains this conclusion: “Since reinstating the death penalty in 1978, California taxpayers have spent roughly $4 billion to fund a dysfunctional death penalty system that has carried out no more than 13 executions.” That is, of course, vastly more than would have been spent if the death penalty were abolished and California had imprisoned its violent criminals rather than attempting to execute them.

All four of these arguments seem compelling to me. Perhaps it is arguments such as these that have led the United Nations and Mr. Ban to call for the abolition of the death penalty. But, unlike Mr. Ban, I am a Christian, and what is decisive for me is Jesus. He said: “Be ye merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Jesus wants us to show mercy. I believe that is good social policy, too.

Fisher Humphreys

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Fisher Humphreys is Professor of Divinity, Emeritus, of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GO7MJ4CDQBB6NZAYSVQ7HPXJSU Jack

    Fisher Humphreys says: There is no convincing evidence that the death penalty serves as a deterrent. A 2009 survey of 500 randomly chosen police chiefs–who ought to know–found that even though most of them support the death penalty, 57% of them think that it does not deter violence because most people who commit violent acts rarely consider the possible consequences of their violence.

    Reply: The death penalty is given as punishment not for deterrence.  However, it does deter the offender from repeat of crime.

  • dahlia gutierrez

    Political arguments and someones life shouldn’t be decided by an entity that may or may not even be a part of the sentenced one, that’s immoral what if they weren’t part of christianity? Your argument is flawed you had me until that last paragraph. Don’t preach to me. This is a free country.

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