2). However, sound policy should not be based on what is popular. Rather, the best indicator that capital punishment makes sense from a public policy perspective is arguably its success as a deterrent of crime.
The deterrent effect of capital punishment has been debated for some time. Studies on the extent to which the death penalty actually causes a decrease in the incidents of murder and other violent crime have produced mixed results. Nevertheless, recent moves by several states to impose moratoria on capital punishment have offered a novel opportunity to assess the impact of a suspension of the death penalty. For the first time, it has been possible to directly compare and contrast violent crime statistics in several jurisdictions both pre- and post-moratorium. This has shown a clear and substantial correlation between elimination of capital punishment and increase in incidents of murder.
This paper discusses the evolution and current state of capital punishment in the United States. It will survey the seminal Supreme Court cases on the topic; and will consider empirical evidence that substantiates the effect of the death penalty as a deterrent. Not only is the death penalty appropriate within a democratic society in which the overwhelming majority of people support it; but it is also a reasonable public policy choice given the evidence substantiating its deterrent effect.
The 20th Century was a very active period for applic...
pital punishment declined somewhat in the 1940s and 1950s, executions were still much more frequent than today: approximately 130 a year in the 1940s and 75 a year during the 1950s, compared to an average of 48 per year in the 1990s. Over 65% of the American public approved of the death penalty during these decades" (Dezhbakhsh & Shepherd, 2006, para.10).
The 1950s and 1960s witnessed a decline in support for the death penalty, with its lowest point coming in at 42% in 1966. "Opposition to the death penalty increased because of growing doubts about the morality of the death penalty, awareness of Western Europe's abandonment of capital punishment, abatement of the 1930s crime wave, lack of deterrence evidence, widespread belief in the racially discriminatory use of the death penalty, and increasing concern about the arbitrariness of death penalty sentences" (para. 11). The number of executions began to decline, reflecting the drop in public support.
The movement of states away from mandatory death sentence statutes and toward discretionary statutes whereby juries had the power to decide whether or not a particular case warranted the death penalty led to an arbitrary application of capital punishment that raised questions about its constitutionality. This period culminated in the Supreme Court's Furman decision, 408 U.S. 238, in which the Court held that "the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty in these cases constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments" (Furman v. Georgia, 1972). The holding in Furman essentially found "that discretionary capital statutes resulted in arbitrary sentencing, violating the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause. This decision effectively voided the death penalty