Why the Death Penalty is Worthless and Unjust

Earlier this month, Maryland voted to abolish the death penalty.  Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley took to the pages of Politico to explain and defend this decision.  His article provides a succinct and compelling case for abolishing a practice that should no longer exist in this nation.

His main points include:

  1. The death penalty is not an effective deterrent.  O’Malley notes, “In 2011, the average murder rate in states where there is a death penalty was 4.9 per 100,000 people. In states without it, the murder rate was lower. It was 4.1 per 100,000 people.”  It is simply not a more effective deterrent than life in prison without the possibility of patrol.
  2. It’s a waste of money.  O’Malley correctly states that there is a responsibility “to stop doing things that are wasteful, expensive, and do not work.”  The financial costs associated with maintaining capital punishment are extraordinarily high, and steps to curtail them would almost certainly result in executing the innocent.  Given the state of the budget and the need to make increased investments in other areas to promote the common good, spending recklessly and needlessly to maintain a death row is a terrible allocation of resources.
  3. The company we keep in executing our own citizens is appalling.  O’Malley cites the fact that the majority of public executions now take place in just seven countries: Iran, Iraq, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United States of America.  If you care about human rights, that’s probably not a list you want your country to be on.
  4. It is fundamentally incompatible with authentic justice.  It’s not simply that our country was not founded on the principles of revenge and retribution, as O’Malley states, but more importantly, that these are unacceptable motives for the use of force by the government.  Justice is about the common good, creating conditions that correspond with human dignity and allow for human flourishing.  It must be rooted in love-based justice, not hate-based bloodlust.
  5. It is unfairly and capriciously applied.  The color of one’s skin, the color of the victim’s skin, one’s socioeconomic status, and one’s gender all impact the likelihood of a death sentence.  Conversely, the gravity of the crime often does not determine whether one will or will not receive the death penalty.  Justice demands a basic level of fairness.  These discrepancies and the ultimate arbitrariness of the death penalty’s application make it unjust and provide good insight into why it does not work as an effective deterrent.
  6. It is impossible to remove the specter of killing innocent people.  O’Malley notes, “Between 2000 and 2011, an average of 5 death row inmates were exonerated every year.”  Does the government really want to execute innocent people when doing so is unnecessary to prevent or deter future crimes?

In others words, it is an indefensible practice that must end.  Hopefully other states will follow Maryland’s lead.