Americans have slowly been coming to terms with the abuses of the criminal justice system. The horrific circumstances of George Floyd’s death last May sparked national protest, shifting the push to end qualified immunity — a rule that protects police officers from civil suits — from libertarian circles into the popular press and the halls of congress. The abuses of power documented in the Making of a Murder Netflix series shocked millions, and the work of the Innocence Project is widely known.
The Overton Window is shifting. Fewer Americans support the war on drugs, harsh criminal sentencing and focus on criminal punishment instead of rehabilitation. The effects of our changing morals can already be seen through the massive wave in drug legalization and the declining federal prison population. If the country’s recent liberalizing trend doesn’t abate, popular opinion will continue to affect legislative action.
Successes in collective moral thinking are worth celebrating. Public intellectuals like Steven Pinker continue to remind us of the incredible progress humanity has made and how far we still have to go. So, before we lose momentum, collective youth action must target another goal: the death penalty.
Giving the government the power to kill its citizens is barbaric. Though Americans venomously disagree about the purposes of government, the idea that it should serve its people is not controversial. True, while we have few reasons to believe that it actually does, progress is possible. A government that can kill even the worst of us stands on shaky moral ground. This is something we can change.
In 2019, two people were executed by hanging, three by a firing squad, and nine by electrocution. While states that authorize multiple forms of execution often allow the prisoner to select the method, this information should give us pause. Hanging is still legal in the United States.
Regardless of claims to morality, pragmatic arguments are easily made against the death penalty. I don’t have enough faith in our criminal justice system to not occasionally kill an innocent person. Do you? Since 1992, more than twenty death row inmates have been exonerated. For context, the government has averaged about twenty annual executions in recent years. In the words of William Blackstone, “It is better that ten guilty escape than one innocent suffer.”
Deterring future murders is one of the most common justifications for the death penalty, yet is unsupported in the literature. Studies find no link between the death penalty and murder rates. On the contrary, as the use of the death penalty falls globally, murder rates continue to decline.
For the budget-conscious, the death penalty is expensive. In 2008 the Urban Institute estimated that Maryland would pay $37 million for each execution. This is not unusual — millions of taxpayer dollars are spent prosecuting and carrying out death penalties. In Texas, the state with the highest number of executions, death penalty cases cost the government almost three times as much as 40-year imprisonment. And Federal litigation costs of death penalty cases are approximately eight times as high as murder cases where the death penalty is not requested.
This is a generation of justice-minded youth. Where is our national youth movement to end the death penalty?
There is no reason to delay founding one. We are already off to an excellent start. Annual executions continue to fall from a peak of 98 executions in 1999, and new death penalty sentences are falling in lock-step. Although federal use of the death penalty rose under Trump, Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered a temporary halt in executions while the Justice Department’s policies are under review.
Though most Americans support the death penalty for people convicted of murder, they are generally skeptical about its effectiveness. Many believe the penalty is not applied in a racially neutral manner, fails to deter people from committing serious crimes and lacks the necessary safeguards to prevent innocent persons from being killed.
Compared to the complexity of ending qualified immunity, which is partially a story of concentrated benefits and diffused costs, the path to ending the death penalty is very different and much simpler. The action here is to do less: spend less and kill less.
This is what we are up against: 27 states, the U.S. Government, and the U.S. Military have a death penalty. Three states — California, Oregon and Pennsylvania — and the U.S. government temporarily, have a moratorium on executions. California has the largest number of current prisoners sentenced to death (724), followed by Florida (340) and Texas (216). Texas accounts for the highest number of executions per year.
Youth action holds considerable power. In recent decades, youth movements spurred the end of the Vietnam war, helped halt national conscription, reformed policing, legalized marijuana and expanded LGBTQ+ rights. It’s time to direct our efforts towards yet another fight: abolishing the death penalty nationwide.
Sarah Eckhardt is a junior studying economics and data science. Do you agree that it is time to abolish the death penalty? Send all comments to Opinion@dailycardinal.com.