Death row is in the East Block at San Quentin prison, where members of the media toured in December 2015. (Los Angeles Times)
La Cañada High School

Pro / Con: Should we keep the death penalty?

What follows is a dialogue between two parties representing typical arguments for and against capital punishment. This activity is not intended to be representative of any particular person’s point of view, only demonstrate the different arguments typically put forth around capital punishment. The black text represents someone advocating for capital punishment, while the blue text represents an argument against. 


Life is sacred and should not be taken under any circumstances. Everyone has a fundamental right to life which should be protected. 

These criminals gave up their right to life when they violated another’s same right. In the same way that someone who uses hate speech can have their right to freedom of speech taken away, a murderer’s right to life is no longer protected by the government. 

People’s right to life is unalienable. Nobody should have the right to dictate when another should live. The death penalty is nothing less than government sanctioned murder. We should aim to make our justice system reformative, not retributive. We cannot fight fire with fire. The desire to kill another for their actions is understandable given the heinous crime in question, however we should not allow the government to normalize such a backwards and barbaric practice. 

The methods of capital punishment are not brutal or excessively cruel. This is because “the vast majority of executions are performed by lethal injection,” which are painless, fast-acting, and involve little struggle — but this isn’t necessarily true.

According to Vox, 7.1% of about 1,000 executions by lethal injection since 1890 were botched, many because of the sedative midazolam failing to work properly.

The drug is supposed to put condemned inmates into a coma-like state before the two following injections, however, it’s unable to keep somebody unconscious if the inmates are already used to painful stimuli, Rob Dunham, executive director at the Death Penalty Information Center told Vox.

“There is no question that the other drugs are going to produce pain… We know from botched executions that the description of being burned alive is physically accurate,” Dunham said to Vox.

How can we consider this practice anything less than cruel and unusual?

Life in prison punishes crime just as effectively and appropriately; in the end, both have the same result: permanently removing threats from society and finding justice. Our justice system should aim to be reformative, not punitive. 

These criminals are to live the rest of their lives in prison with no chance of parole. Why spend money on reforming them if they will never return to society? What is the difference to society as a whole? There is practically none. 

On a smaller scale, however, capital punishment allows the families of the victim to gain closure. Without capital punishment, they would have to live with the knowledge that the their family member’s killer is still out there — and they would be among the taxpayers footing the bill for his housing and meals. Instead, capital punishment can provide a sense of closure for the victim’s loved ones. 

For example, in 1995 Jack Harold Jones had raped and killed Mary Phillips and beat her 11-year-old daughter, Lacey. 

A whole 22 years later, Darla Jones was able to watch the execution of her sister’s assailant and her mother’s murderer, according to CNN. She was unsure how much of the execution she will watch, but she planned to look at the screen “to physically see him there, just so I’ll know that it’s real,” she said.

“She’s ready for it to be done,” her husband, Darrin Seal told CNN. “It’s going to bring some closure to the entire family.”

That idea has been disputed, though. In fact, a University of Minnesota study, found that 2.5% of co-victims said they found closure in their assailant’s execution, but 20.1% said the capital punishment didn’t help them heal.

It’s also important to remember that healing is a slow process, not a standalone event. 

Furthermore, a recent study by North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty that analyzed the mental health of victims’ families found that those living in a state without the death penalty were healthier psychologically than families in states where capital punishment is used. 

So if the death penalty does not necessarily benefit the victim’s family nor society as a whole, then why keep it?

Each family grieves differently. If a family would sleep better knowing that their loved one’s murderer is no longer alive, then they should be given that much. 

Because it is actually cheaper to send people to life in prison instead of the death penalty, the legal process can take decades, causing the death penalty to cost at least 18 times as much as a sentence of life without parole would cost, according to nonprofit Death Penalty Focus.

This means that Californians pay over $117 million annually to maintain a death penalty system that’s equivalent to death in prison, according to nonprofit ProCon.org. This money could instead be diverted to rehabilitation programs and youth education in order to prevent violence in the future instead of perpetuating it. 

The only reason that the death penalty is more expensive because the legal process takes so long. Otherwise, it would obviously cost less than life in prison simply because convicts do not require room and board. If capital punishment is currently too costly, we should reform the process, not eliminate it.

In California, a slight majority of citizens seem to prefer this, as in 2016 California 53% of people voted against Proposition 62, which would have repealed capital punishment in California, and 51% of people in favor of Proposition 66, which would speed up the appeals process, according to nonprofit CalMatters

It would be easier to abolish the death penalty altogether than reform the justice system. And regardless, even if it has the potential to become cheaper, the death penalty is still senseless and unnecessary. Last year, 22 people were executed in the U.S., according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

We cannot continue killing when we already have a nonviolent alternative.

Perhaps you would save one murderer’s life, but capital punishment acts as an effective deterrent to murder, thus saving countless more lives in the process. With stakes as high as one’s own life at risk, people will be less likely to commit such a crime. 

The death penalty has repeatedly been shown to be ineffective as a deterrent. For example, one international study analyzing data from 110 nations over a period of 74 years found that in fact, the death penalty has failed to significantly affect murder rates. Furthermore, a 2009 survey of criminologists revealed that “over 88% believed the death penalty was not a deterrent to murder.”

The death penalty is permanent, meaning if someone is wrongfully convicted, the effects are irreversible. If there is even a small possibility of putting an innocent person to death, we should abstain from the practice entirely. In fact, such instances are more common than one might think.

A 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that “at least 4.1% of all defendants sentenced to death in the US in the modern era [since 1973] are innocent.”

Furthermore, discrimination  seems to play a role in inconsistent rulings. For example, a 2001 study from the University of North Carolina found that the odds of receiving a death sentence increased if the victim was white, rather than black.

Furthermore, this discrimination of sex seems to favor women, as women committed less than 10% of all murders in the U.S. from 2000 to 2010, but women make up just 2% of death row, according to Business Insider.

Lastly, because socioeconomically disadvantaged people cannot afford top lawyers, they receive subpar legal representation and are therefore also overrepresented on death row.

In fact, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, 95% of convicts on death row came from underprivileged backgrounds.

Although these biases would hardly be eliminated by the outlawing of the death penalty, doing so would decrease this disparity since differences in sentences are quite less drastic than the difference between life and death.