The Death Penalty

An Age-Old Debate Examined In A Modern Context


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By Alexandra Bixler

        The death penalty is alive and well in the United States, as the majority of states continue to use it. However, support for the policy is waining. On February 22, 2019, Kansas’ Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee decided by a narrow 7-6 vote to not repeal the state's death penalty policy, enacted in 1994.[1] This close vote demonstrates just how divided Kansasians, a state traditionally in support of capital punishment, are on the issue, even within the samepolitical party. Former Republican Johnson County Senator, Greg Smith, believed that repealing the death penalty would be an injustice to the families of homicide victims such as his daughter, Kelsey.

“I am not here to cast judgment on the validity of another homicide survivor’s feelings,” Smith stated. “Yet, every time the Legislature decides to bring this issue up, you force every homicide survivor to relive their worst day. The pain, the grief, the shock and the horror all comes back as fresh as the day our loved one was murdered.” 

On the contrary, former Republican Rep. Steven Becker claimed, “How can we impose the absolute certainty of death when we do not require the absolute certainty of guilt?”

Becker’s ideology is adopted in most nations. The United States is one of the only 54 countries that still utilizes the death penalty, which is allowed in 30 states. The death penalty has been employed since America’s colonial years; while the practice was temporarily outlawed with the Supreme Court Case, Furman v. Georgia in 1972, which ruled that the death penalty was a violation of both the 8th and 14th amendments, it was legalized once again by Gregg v. Georgia in 1976 when the court decided it was not in violation of the amendments if the sentence was delivered at the time of the trial and the jury responsible for sentencing the individual reviewed case details. Since this ruling, 7800 people have received the death penalty and 1400 people have been executed.[2]

        Nonetheless, the use of the death penalty has growless popular in recent years, demonstrating a cultural shift in public attitudes. According to a 2010 study published by Lake Research Partners, 61% of voters said they would prefer alternative punishments, such as life in prison, to the death penalty. Delaware overturned its death penalty in 2016 followed by a quiet reversal by Vermont in 2018, adding to a trend of weaning support for the once popular opinion reached in Gregg v Georgia.

        One of the primary arguments used to defend the death penalty relies on the notion that it deters crime. This argument is inherently misleading since crime statistics suggest that no such effect exists. National crime rates from 2016-2017 by state and region demonstrate that states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states without it. This is not to say that the death penalty caused more crime, but instead to argue that there is no indication that it is acting as a deterrent. The region categorized as the “south” has the smallest amount of states without the death penalty (one, Delaware) but the highest murder rate at 6.6 for every 100,000 people in comparison to the “West,” “Midwest,” and “Northeast.”[3] The “South” is not only where the death penalty is the most legal, but is also where it is used far more often. Oklahoma and Texas alone contribute more to nationwide executions than the Midwest, West, and Northeast regions.

        The death penalty not only fails to deter crime but also imposes an expensive burden on the taxpayer. Oklahoma found that the death penalty cost $700,000 more to execute, while New Mexico found that the state’s death penalty would cost it $7.2 million dollars over a span of three years.[4] Colorado found that the costs associated with the death penalty were not only financial: resolving cases with the death penalty, on average, took three times longer to solve than similar cases without it.

While the American justice system has come a long way in terms of social equality, systematic discrimination is still alive and well. This is not to say that all judges and other legal officials are actively discriminating against certain groups, but rather unintentional discrimination and biases still rampantly occur, often costing minoritites their lives. Non-hispanic blacks make up roughly 12% of the American population but have represented 34% of executed defendants, demonstrating the justice system’s systematic dehumanization and lack of sympathy for black defendants. Additionally, while only 50% of murder victims are white, this statistic hikes to 76% for cases that result in death penalty. The fact that minorities, especially when the victims of the killer are white, are disproportionately put to death illustrates the inequalities present in the current justice system that causes officials to hold different levels of sympathy for different races.

Sex is another problem facing the justice system’s application of the death penalty. Our often patriarchal justice system is more easily convinced of a female defendant's “emotionally fragile” state than it is of a man’s, demonstrating that, while women may face the brunt of misogyny, men still suffer consequences.[5] Even when the murder rate of men is accounted for, currently standing at 90% of all murders, they are still more likely to receive the death penalty than women. This, unfortunately, is an outcome of a patriarchal legal system because if one receives the death penalty is determined by “aggravating” factors, like a history of violence. Since women are far less likely than men to have a history of violence, this is one of the many reasons they are more able to avoid the death penalty. Additionally, women are more likely to kill people they know, while men are more likely to kill strangers. Killing strangers is more likely to result in the death penalty than an intimate partner, leading to sentence discrepancies.

While wrongful convictions can be undone, death is irreversible. Capital punishment is ultimately expensive to the taxpayer, does not deter crime and discriminates against both minorities and men. America must fight to end this expensive, imperfect practice and instead advocate to invest resources and time into more humane alternatives.


[1] Carpenter, Tim. “Kansas bill repealing death penalty evokes moral, religious, justice arguments.” The Garden City Telegram20 February 2019

[2] “Death Penalty Information Center: Facts about the death penalty.” 12 March 2019.

[3] Crime in the United States by Region, Geographical Division, and State, 2016-2017” FBI, 10 September 2018

[4] “Costs of the Death Penalty,” Costs of the Death Penalty | Death Penalty Information Center, 25 March 2019

[5] Oliver, Amanda. “The Death Penalty Has a Gender Bias” Huffington Post. 01 October 2018.