116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The death penalty is one of those topics avoided in conversation because most people acknowledge the controversial nature of it. Iowa and many other states that abolished the use of the death penalty decades ago have made countless attempts to reinstate it.
Iowa first abolished the death penalty in 1872 but after citizens began to take justice into their own hands, it was reinstated in 1878. It was again abolished in 1965 and remains so today. According to Iowans Against the Death Penalty, there have been attempts at reinstatement documented in 1876, 1963, 1975, 1976, 1993, 1994, 1997, and 1998. In January of this year, the Iowa Legislature introduced a bill, SSB 1004, which attempted to reinstate the death penalty once again. The bill did not advance during this session but it’s concerning that it was introduced at all.
Reinstatement of the death penalty would be a step backward for justice reform which is why it is crucial that Iowans consider these arguments and reach out to local legislators to keep the death penalty off the table in the future.
Deterrence is among the many reasons that people support the death penalty. This is the idea that future criminals will be deterred from committing similar crimes if they see someone put to death for it. Research on this topic has been inconclusive. Another argument comes from the retributivist theory of punishment which essentially says offenders should be punished proportionally to the crime committed. This argument boils down to what Flanders calls “A life for a life.” Another argument mentioned by Rachel King in favor of the death penalty is the idea that it will reduce taxpayers’ burden because “killing people is cheaper than housing them in prison.” Finally, many believe that putting a criminal to death will provide closure for victims’ families.
In terms of deterrence, as previously stated, the evidence is inconclusive. But this argument has deeper implications; the justification is that murderers who will be deterred, and therefore the lives that will be saved, are enough to justify the death penalty. This raises the question though; do we do anything as long as it has a deterrent effect? There is also concern with the idea of “killing the few to save the many” mentioned by Finkelstein. This devalues the lives of the condemned and essentially views them only as a means to save others. Supporters may rationalize that the condemned are guilty, and therefore deserving of this punishment. Unfortunately, according to Marshall, since the 21st century we have entered an “innocence revolution” with well over 100 individuals walking off death row having been exonerated. That may seem like a rare occurrence, but according to The Equal Justice Initiative for every 9 people executed, one person on death row is exonerated. The potential for this practice to result in the execution of an innocent person blatantly illustrates its immorality.
When it comes to the monetary aspect of the death penalty, the outrageous yearly cost serves as just one more reason to oppose this practice. For example, King states that the death penalty costs California $90 million annually and in Texas an average death penalty case costs $2.3 million which is about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for forty years. If that isn’t enough, the cost in comparison to the cost of life without parole provides an even more compelling reason to oppose capital punishment.
The final argument most supporters focus on is the families of victims. It is easy to believe that families may benefit from the death of an individual who killed or seriously harmed their loved one, but oftentimes that is not the case. Marietta Jaeger, one person interviewed in Rachel King’s moving book, Don’t Kill in Our Names whose daughter was kidnapped and killed, explains her opposition to the death penalty: “I decided that the death penalty would only increase my desire for revenge and would not help me. In fact, I believe it would hurt me.” Even if one believes it helps the family, it still raises a critical question: why is it OK to punish murderers with more murder?
Also significant are the racial and economic disparities that exist in the application of the death penalty. First, we see there are more Black defendants tried for the death penalty than white defendants, with the ACLU reporting that 55 percent of those currently awaiting execution are Black. There is also a significant difference in the likelihood of seeking the death penalty based on the race of the victim. The ACLU states that “while white victims account for approximately one-half of all murder victims, 80 percent of all Capital cases involve white victims.” It is also shown that the death penalty disproportionately impacts the poor.
In a report given on World Day Against the Death Penalty, The United Nations stated “If you are poor, the chances of being sentenced to death are immensely higher than if you are rich. There could be no greater indictment of the death penalty than the fact that in practice it is really a penalty reserved for people from lower socio-economic groups.” This unveils the discriminatory nature of this practice and further illustrates the moral responsibility we have to stand in opposition to a practice that targets already marginalized populations in our society.
The death penalty is one issue that has remained extremely controversial. This is especially true in Iowa, where there have been many attempts to revert to the use of the death penalty. Though there are numerous arguments made in favor of this practice, many of these arguments are flawed, invalid, or rely on certain assumptions. Capital punishment has lost a lot of public support in the last twenty years, so it is only right that Iowa continues moving in the right direction by expressing opposition to the death penalty and keeping reinstatement attempts out of our legislature. It is also crucial that my fellow Iowans vote for legislators in future elections who stand in opposition to this practice too.
The death penalty is expensive, discriminatory, and serves no true purpose that cannot be achieved through other alternatives like life without parole or even non-life sentences that include rehabilitation.
Delaney Logan is a senior at Coe College majoring in psychology and criminal justice.