December 22, 2014 · 30 Kislev

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Values of Restitution and Deterrence
How the concepts of restitution and deterrence relate to capital punishment.

Value of Restitution

Most supporters of the death penalty cite justice, punishment, and a desire for "closure" as the factors that inform their opinion. In practice, however, the idea of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life" is not so simple. The Talmud placed so many preconditions for the imposition of the death penalty that actually applying the death penalty was nearly impossible.

For example, capital cases required a 23-judge court, while only three judges sat for non-capital cases (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:1). Two or more eyewitnesses were required to testify to the defendant's guilt, bearing in mind that it was their hands that would, "be the first against him to put him to death" (Deuteronomy 17:6-7). In a capital case, a one-vote majority could acquit a defendant, but could not convict. Furthermore, if there was a mere one-vote majority or if any judge was undecided, additional judges were added in pairs until the majority ruled against conviction, or until one judge in favor of conviction was persuaded to err on the side of innocence (Mishnah Sanhedrin 5:5).

Today, the threat of an execution means that there will almost always be a lengthy trial and years of appeals. More than forty percent of death penalty cases are turned back for reconsideration, while those who are executed spend an average of 12 years waiting on death row to die.

Many families of victims are opposed to the death penalty. They echo the thoughts of Odine Stern, former director of Parents of Murdered Children that no sentence can ever "equate to the loss of your child's life and the horrors of murder."

Value of Deterrence

Contrary to what many politicians and others argue, capital punishment is not an effective deterrent to crime, as illustrated by a number of studies

  • States that have death penalty laws do not have lower crime rates or murder rates than states without such laws. In fact, states with the death penalty have higher crime rates than those without.
  • Evidence shows that states that have abolished capital punishment, or institute it, show no significant changes in either crime or murder rates.
  • Over 80 percent of criminologists believe there is no deterrence justification for the death penalty. Moreover, the South-- the region which boasts the highest number of executions-- also has the highest murder rate.

At a Justice Department news briefing, former Attorney General Janet Reno said, "I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point."  

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