Californians will be voting this fall on whether or not to continue the death penalty in their state. Proponents of the change in the law cite the cost in time and money to carry out an execution and possible racial issues with who gets the death penalty.
I'm conflicted. At a gut level, I believe that if you intentionally take the life of another human being without mitigating circumstances such as self-defense, then you should pay with your life. The death penalty in the United States has become rare and used for only a very narrow range of crimes, and the restrictive manner in which a person can be condemned helps to ensure that it will only be used in the most egregious circumstances.
But if the point of the death penalty is to punish the offender and deter crime, it's a failure. If someone commits murder today, and is then arrested, tried, convicted, and condemned to death, they're almost as likely to die of old age as they are to get a needle in their arm. How do decades of time spent in a special wing of a prison, with food, shelter, health care, and entertainment taken care of, punish someone?* How does the occasional news report or celebrity protest against an execution deter someone who has absolutely no connection to either a crime that happened years ago or an execution that is done behind concrete walls and out of the public square. If the purpose is to punish and deter, then executions should be done in public in the community where the crime happened and done as soon after the crime as possible.
Another issue is the small, but not insignificant, number of people who are exonerated** years after their conviction, sometimes after spending years on death row. I know that they are a small percentage of those who are convicted of crimes, but I still believe in "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer". Add to that the fact that once a person is executed, no amount of new DNA evidence or confessions by the actual killer can bring bring them back. Giving the state the power to take a citizen's life puts the most critical responsibility in the world, the responsibility to only take the life of those who truly deserve it, in the hands of a group of people who couldn't make a profit with a whorehouse.
So to make a long blog post short, I have mixed feelings about the death penalty. My emotions and values tell me that there are indeed those who deserve to have their lives ended because of their crimes. I don't believe that the way we do it currently is the correct way to do it if we are going to do it at all. I don't think it's effective as a deterrent for others, and I don't believe that the state does a good enough job in making sure that those who get the death penalty truly deserve it.
If I still lived in California, I'd probably vote for this measure. If the way we administer the death penalty in this country was more effective and better at sorting the sheep from the goats, I would probably feel different.
*Of course, the same could be said about life in prison with no parole as it is practiced today.
**Yes, I know that that website is horribly biased in this debate, but that particular page seems to have empirical data as opposed to emotion and opinion.