Capital punishment: A shift in thinking

Is America finally ready to join the civilized world? Photo: CACorrections (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

SANTA CRUZ, September 20, 2013 — A recent poll of Boston residents shows that 57 percent of them favor a life sentence over the death penalty for bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. While Massachusetts is one of 18 U.S. states which have abolished the death penalty, Tsarnaev could still face capital punishment due to his actions violating federal law.

The fact that so many Bostonians believe Tsarnaev should not be put to death could be a hopeful sign that Americans are finally coming around. Opponents of capital punishment have long held that it is an archaic, wasteful and ineffective method of dispensing justice. Americans who still support it are often unable to give any credible reason beyond the reactionary urge for revenge or bloodlust.

Perhaps these Americans are unaware that the U.S. is one of only a handful of countries which still put its citizens to death. Most industrialized, Western democracies, with whom the U.S. shares many cultural and social traits, have done away with the practice years ago. Europeans, Australians, Canadians or Scandinavians are often curious to know why Americans still cling to something as inhumane and unproductive as the death penalty, while their own nations enjoy lower per capita crime rates without it.

The United States suspended the use of capital punishment in 1972 as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision Furman v. Georgia. After the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, it has seen a decline in both its implementation and popularity, with few exceptions. Opponents of capital punishment have pointed to the hundreds of overturned convictions and rampant discrimination in its implementation based on race, geography and socioeconomic class as a reason not to put prisoners to death.

Then there is the fact that it has not served as a reasonable deterrent to violent crime. Recidivism rates among violent offenders have been largely unaffected in states which have the death penalty and, somewhat surprisingly, it costs a states taxpayers more to execute a prisoner than to sentence them to life in prison. 

Violent crimes are horrific for everyone involved. Nobody believes a guilty offender ought to be pampered or given amnesty. The tough choice is to resist the encoded instinct for revenge and look at the bigger picture. A just society ought to hold itself to a higher standard, regardless of the circumstances. It is an approach which works in dozens of countries with which America has much in common.

By clinging to the inhumane and wasteful practice of capital punishment, the United States retains dubious membership in an unenviable club of nations which includes Afghanistan, China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Vietnam, not exactly the company America would like to keep in light of its bombastic public condemnation of human rights violations around the world.

Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.


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Russ Rankin

Santa Cruz, California native Russ Rankin is the vocalist for the seminal California punk band Good Riddance, the hard rock band Only Crime as well as currently performing original songs as a solo artist. Rankin is a dedicated vegan, an avid animal rights advocate, a political activist and has been a regular columnist for AMP Magazine and New Noise Magazine as well as contributing to various magazines such as Alternative Press, Razorcake and others. 

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