Opinion | Do not reinstate the death penalty

The death penalty should not be reinstated because it is discriminatory and ineffective as a crime deterrent.

Kyle Tristan Ortega, Opinions Contributor

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.

Debates about the implementation of capital punishment have recently been renewed in Iowa. Specifically, state Sen. Brad Zaun is making efforts to reinstate the death penalty for specific crimes like the kidnapping and rape of a minor.

Similar bills aiming to advance the death penalty in legislation were introduced in 2019 and 2021, but they did not reach the floor for consideration. Zaun has reintroduced the debate in Iowa, arguing that criminals almost have an incentive to murder potential witnesses to their crimes because the penalty for murder is not severe enough.

However, though common conceptions of justice and fairness would intuitively tell us that criminals who commit heinous acts deserve death, the death penalty has negative consequences that make it morally precarious to implement. The death penalty should not be reinstated because it is discriminatory and does not effectively deter crime.

One of the main arguments for the death penalty, aside from justice for victims, is that it deters crime.

Research has shown this isn’t the case. However, for the sake of argument, let us assume that capital punishment does deter crime. It would be too dangerous of a deterrent because of the existing biases against minorities and people of color in the criminal justice system with regards to sentencing. Iowa’s justice system is no exception to this.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in the U.S., people of color have accounted for 43 percent of total executions since 1976, with 80 percent of these cases involving crimes against white victims. Additional studies in the Civil Liberties Law Review have garnered similar results, showing that execution rates for defendants in cases where the victim was white are 17 times higher than for defendants in cases where the victim was Black. In Iowa prisons specifically, one in every four prisoners is Black, which has remained the case for decades.

These statistics showcase a systemic racial disparity when it comes to how death sentences are decided. With execution being an irreversible punishment, it is clear why this would be an issue.

Regardless, capital punishment and arguments for it have a fundamental problem. Does the death penalty really deter crime? Research suggests that it does not to any significant degree.

A study by the Committee on Law and Justice claims that findings on the deterrent effect of capital punishment are too weak to guide policy-making decisions. Essentially, there is not enough evidence to prove or disprove that the death penalty deters crime.

This is a problem for capital punishment because if it does not conclusively deter crime, there would be no reasonable justification for Iowa to reinstate it.

There are costs and risks associated with capital punishment that does not make its implementation worth it considering that its supposed benefit — crime deterrence — is not guaranteed.

Therefore, based on its high costs and low benefits, Iowa should not reinstate the death penalty.

Regardless, there are still arguments to be made for it. The ones that always come to mind are arguments based on justice and fairness. It seems intuitive to think that if someone commits an atrocious act, they forfeit their right to life.

Views on this will vary; however, implementing the death penalty would have severe and irreversible implications for not only criminals but also innocent people. Even with moral or justice-based arguments for capital punishment, it should not be reinstated in Iowa.

Instead, Iowa should retain the life sentence as its most serious punishment. It is cheaper than the death penalty, saving $90,000 taxpayer dollars per death row inmate per year, according to the ACLU. Moreover, it allows people who were falsely convicted the opportunity to regain their freedom, should it be discovered that they were innocent. Overall, there is less risk involved, which makes it the better alternative to capital punishment.