Social science research has entered the death penalty debate through studies examining prosecutorial decisions to seek the death penalty and jury decision-making. Researchers have also used panel data and fixed effects multiple regression models to identify whether state-level changes in the death penalty result in changes in homicide rates.
When governments impose the death penalty, they believe it deters murderers because of the certainty of execution and the severity of the punishment. However, research shows that the evidence for a deterrent effect from executions is flawed.
The studies that claim to have discovered an extraordinary deterrent power from executions suffer from many flaws, including inappropriate methods of statistical analysis, failures to consider significant predictors that drive murder rates, missing data on crucial states and years, the tyranny of outlier states or years, weak or non-existent tests of concurrent effects of incarceration and death sentences, the reliance on short-term trends and a faulty assumption about how prisoners perceive the risk of being killed – all of which invalidate any conclusion about a possible deterrent impact of capital punishment.
Criminals don't commit crimes purely because of fear of consequences. Feelings like rage and drug or alcohol use drive the vast majority. Furthermore, people convicted of homicide are not randomly chosen, and most of those sentenced to death were convicted of killing people they knew.
According to death row information, prisoners spend decades in harsh conditions with the ever-present knowledge that they will be executed and the uncertainty of when that will happen. This can lead to psychological distress and severe mental and physical deterioration, a condition known as the death row phenomenon or, simply, death row.
Consequences for Innocent Persons
Innocent people are often wrongly convicted of crimes, including capital crimes. They may spend years or even decades in prison before being cleared of their convictions. This is mainly because of various factors, such as overzealous prosecution, faulty police work, false or coerced testimony, race, class and poverty, seemingly conclusive circumstantial evidence, and inept or unresourced defense counsel. Because of the high stakes for police, prosecutors, and judges when obtaining a death sentence – mistakes are more likely to be made.
When these errors are discovered, they can result in reprieves or commutations. These are often granted just hours or even minutes before the scheduled execution. In the United States alone, more than 160 wrongful death sentences have been invalidated by state and federal courts.
The erroneous convictions and imprisonment of innocent people also create undeserved burdens for those wrongly convicted and their dependents. Innocent dependents can seek compensation for their disproportionate burdens, but ignorant persons improperly convicted and executed cannot. This difference raises the moral question of whether the state should compensate innocent dependents for the duties they suffer while incarcerated or only pay innocent persons wrongly convicted and executed. The latter is the more reasonable course of action.
Discrimination Against Black People
In the US and globally, black people experience disproportionately long prison sentences. This is because of discrimination in every stage of the criminal justice system – from stops and searches to arrests and convictions to sentencing, parole, probation, and revocation decisions. Race matters at all these stages and is often a significant predictor of how the legal system will treat Black people.
For prisoners on death row, conditions are harsh and isolating. They spend years uncertain, knowing that their eventual execution is unavoidable but not exactly when it will happen. The time on death row also affects the quality and extent to which prisoners can access legal representation.
Research shows that the discrimination incarcerated people face is closely linked to their lifetime experiences of discrimination in society. For example, those with a history of incarceration have significantly higher levels of depressive symptoms and psychological distress than their peers without this experience. This societal prejudice leads to disparities in prisoner populations and is a crucial reason racial inequality in the criminal justice system must be addressed.
For decades, LDF has been a leading voice in the fight to abolish the death penalty and eliminate racial bias from the justice system. Our landmark 1972 case in Furman v. Georgia resulted in the country's first and only nationwide halt to executions.
Human Rights Concerns
Many legal experts agree that executions are inhumane and should be limited to the most severe crimes. Volker Turk, a senior counsel at Amnesty International, added that “proportionality and fairness are crucial to any criminal justice system, but they are essential when the punishment is death.”
The disproportionate impact of the death penalty on poor people also worries human rights advocates. These individuals are more likely to be killed by the state, and they may not receive proper legal assistance because they cannot afford to hire good lawyers. In addition, they are often given free legal aid too late in their case, which means they have little chance of proving their innocence.
Furthermore, incarceration can lead to severe mental and physical health problems. The lengthy periods of solitary confinement that many prisoners on death row experience can cause severe emotional trauma and make them more susceptible to various mental illnesses. Furthermore, aging prisoners who spend decades in isolation can become increasingly frail and vulnerable to physical harm.
The United Nations Charter obligates States to respect and protect human rights, including the right to life. Governments must adhere to these standards and implement effective crime control strategies, focusing on preventing and addressing the causes of crime. By doing so, they can ensure that victims of crime and their families receive the appropriate redress and dignity.