The Threat of Death


As the war on crime continues, two truths hold steady: eliminating all
crime is impossible, and controlling it is a must. The main weapon used to
control crime in this war is deterrence. The government\'s deterrent for
committing murder is the death penalty. The fear of death will not deter every
person who contemplates murder from doing it. Whether it is for religious
reasons and the hope of salvation or something else, stopping some people is not
possible (Cohen 48). The intent is not to stop those people, but instead every
other would-be killer. Capital Punishment has been in the national spotlight
for many years and the center of the debate still remains whether it actually
deters would be offenders. Does this age-old penalty for the ultimate sin
achieve its goal? There are many lofty and rational arguments on both sides of
this issue.
Advocates of the death penalty claim that the primary reason for this
harsh punishment is that the fear of death discourages people from committing
murder. The main ways in which they support this theory are: the severity of
the punishment, various polls of citizens and prisoners, and two in particular
studies.
The most obvious deterring justification is the severity of punishment
(Calebresi 19). This means, put simply, to punish for a crime in a way that the
punishment outweighs the crime. If the punishment for robbing a bank is to
spend one day in jail, then bank robbing would become a daily occurance. On the
same note, if there is a reward for a lost item of jewelry and the reward is
less than the selling price for that jewelry, the finder has no reason to bring
it back. On the other hand, if the reward exceeds the value of the jewelry, the
new owner will bring it back very promptly. In the case of capital punishment,
if a person wants someone dead badly enough, and the punishment for murder is a
short stay in prison, what will possibly keep that person from doing the
unthinkable (Van Den Haag 68). If a person is afraid for their life, then the
stakes for their actions are much higher, probably even too high for most people.
Many psychologists believe that these "stakes" do not even have to be in
conscious thought for them to work. The theory is that a person\'s conscience
weighs out many factors in all instances. While a would-be offender might be
contemplating the deed, the death penalty imbeds itself into that person\'s
subconscience as a possible consequence of their actions, and thus the
conscience of that person begins to tilt to one side (Guernsey 70).
Another argument for the side that says capital punishment deters is the
majority opinion. New York, until recently, had been one of the few states left
that had yet to employ a death penalty for murder. In a recent opinion-poll,
fifty-seven percent of the respondents say that they believe that the death
penalty deters other criminals from killing (Kuntz 3). As it turns out, the
citizens of society are not the only ones that think the death penalty deters.
The death-roll inmates also feel this way. Through voicing their opinions on
how they feel and their actions (i.e., appeals, more appeals, etc.), they make
it clear that losing their life scares them badly.
There are two main studies that the proponents of the death penalty
refer to as proof of capital punishment\'s deterring qualities. The first such
study is by New York University professor Isaac Ehrlich. Through Professor
Ehrlich\'s research and studies of statistics that span sixty-six years, he
concludes that each execution prevents around seven or eight people from
committing murder (Worsnop 402). In 1985, an economist from the University of
North Carolina by the name of Stephen K. Layson publishes a report that shows
that every execution of a murderer deters eighteen would be murderers (Guernsey
68). While the numbers from these
studies might seem minute compared to the large number of murders committed
every day in the United States, the numbers become quite large when discussed
in the terms of the nearly four thousand executions that occurred in this
country over the last sixty-five years (Guernsey 65).
While advocates of the death penalty are putting forth extremely strong
arguments that support the proposition that capital punishment prevents murders,
opponents of the death penalty are putting forth arguments that are just as
weighty saying that the death penalty does nothing of the kind. Atypical
instances of murder, such as ones dealing with juvenile or mentally deficient
offenders, statistics make up the