American’s Irrational Death Penalty Thinking

Reasons for Death Penalty Support

This is from a Vox article, This Chart Shows America’s Old Testament Thinking on the Death Penalty. It shows the change in the reasons that people give for support of the death penalty over the last 25 years. The “eye for an eye” reason was and still is the biggest reason for it. But it is going down. In fact, all of the reasons are going down. But there is one reason that didn’t even register 25 years ago, but which now is the reason 15% of Americans give for support of the death penalty: it saves tax-payers’ money.

That one is funny, because as anyone who even casually follows the issue knows: it costs a lot more to kill someone than it does to just lock them in a cage for the rest of their lives. Sadly, my experience when telling this to capital punishment fans is that they then start grousing about the fact that we don’t just just shoot them right there on sentencing. This position is untenable, so such conversations always leads to either (1) the fan turning back to “eye for an eye” logic; or (2) the fan claiming that wrongful executions are just an unfortunate aspect of their efficient killing system.

But think about the “saves tax-payers’ money” argument. It is a psychopathic argument: other people’s lives are not worth spending any money. These are the same people who think it is just fine with the huge oil companies getting billions of dollars in tax breaks. But paying a small fraction of that to make it slightly less likely that an innocent person is executed is just too much. This is not just the thinking of a psychopath; this is the thinking of a stupid psychopath.

The graph is also interesting in that “they will repeat crime” and “set an example” have gone down to almost zero support. So apparently, people have given up on these notions. This is good because they simply are invalid: people don’t escape from prison and the death penalty doesn’t discourage people from murder because murder is almost never a rational crime. And maybe these are the people who moved into the anti-death penalty camp, because overall support is down from 1991:

Overall Death Penalty Support - Gallup

Regardless, what it all shows is that support for the death penalty is not rational. Most people are for it out of a sense of revenge (understandable but hardly good policy) or they believe it will do things it doesn’t do. But I think that people like myself who hate the death penalty should be careful. Many think that support for it is decreasing. But that’s not really true. As you can see in the graph, support peaked during the Reagan and Clinton years, but all that has happened since then is that the hateful fever has lifted. Now we are back to where it always is: with roughly 60% of Americans thinking it is a great idea despite the dozens of death row inmates who have been exonerated.

I disagree with Jonathan Gruber: Americans are not especially stupid. But they score very high on “evil.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “American’s Irrational Death Penalty Thinking

  1. Actually, I favour the death penalty in principle. I really think that there are some people who don’t deserve to share this planet with Frank Morales and me – Condi, Dick, and their alter-egos in the axis of evil (I’d call it ‘the other axis of evil).

    Does this make me evil? I don’t know. I do know that I don’t support any current death penalty practices. I was surprised hearing how many death-row inmates exonerated by DNA since testing became available. And recent sickening events in Texas and elsewhere, in which prosecutors and politicians had the nerve to celebrate execution of the innocent, really have opened my eyes to the meaning of the American Right Wing machine.

    • Yeah, I’ve thought that the death penalty wouldn’t be a bad idea if it were applied to powerful people who are responsible for great pain and suffers — also people who put an “l” in my last name!

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