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Death penalty in the United States: an unbalanced practice

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par Julie Rérolle
Université Aix-Marseille 1 - M1 Langues Etrangères Appliquées 2007

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Death penalty is a difficult subject to deal with in its entirety. Each jurisdiction interprets differently when and how to employ it; it is thus difficult to draw definitive conclusions. Beyond personal convictions, prejudices, and vague assessments, the debate on death penalty brings to the forefront obvious facts about American society. The study at hand should have demonstrated that the southern states apply capital punishment more frequently, and in a more discriminatory fashion. The presented execution figures, along with those outlining the racial and ethnic composition of the death row population prove these hypotheses.

The example of Texas is unique and demonstrates on its own the faults inherent in an unbalanced system (due primarily to biased judiciary procedure). The use of death penalty in a country such as the United States is very controversial and arouses much criticism from all areas of the world. «A lot of nations removed death penalty from their legislations, but the United States is a young nation, and maybe, the experiment of death penalty has not been carried out until its term.»93(*)

However, current moratoria as well as recent changes such as the prohibition of executing mentally handicapped persons (2002) and minors (2005), provide hope and allow us to believe in a future national abolition. But is the abolition of death penalty conceivable in the United States, and if so, by which means?

The Federal Supreme Court is the most likely means to an end regarding any potential change of death penalty practices in the United States. New judges could enter the Supreme Court and bring along with them new ideas on this delicate and problematic issue.

If public opinion could adopt a less radical attitude, perhaps the Supreme Court would respond to this change in mentality and impose moratoria or pass abolitionist laws. A more efficient fight against criminal activity, for example, could help people to change their points of view concerning the system at hand. The current example of New York City, which became a model for the police of the entire world by successfully preventing delinquency, could set the stage again with attempts to decrease the use of death penalty. However, the media will have an important role to play in the change of the public opinion as well.

Unfortunately, such advancements are not to be expected in the near future. Indeed, in order to respond to one death penalty objective, that of dissuasion, several recent measures were taken in order to reduce the possibility of appeals given to death row inmates. Reducing the possibility of appeal has as its main purpose to accelerate executions.

The study of death penalty and its application reveals tremendously aspects of American society including: the concept of life and death, human nature, and forgiveness. It is a vast subject which allows a multitude of orientations of research.

Before anything else, it would be necessary to examine programs in the U.S. dedicated to preventing crime. More time and money should be spent in social en educational programs devoted to creating social and economic justice, as well as overall balance within the country. And as Victor Hugo said: «when you open a school, you close a prison.»

Conditions of incarceration, processes of rehabilitation, and programs dedicated to preventing relapse could also be an interesting subject of study. As for the moment, the system should focus rather on rehabilitating inmates, ensuring a lesser rate of inmate return. Furthermore, in order to reduce economic and social disparity, more time and money should be spent towards education, vocational training, treatments and social programs.

Aside from the aforementioned, there exists still the question of the deterrent effect, and the fact that it has been widely exploited by supporters. While those who back this concept believe firmly in its power to dissuade criminal activity, we find still that no research has been conducted to determine if the presence of executions might actually bring violence, encouraging crime.

Thus, being such a vast subject, it is in grave need of further study. Personally, the experience of having researched and written a critical analysis on this subject was very positive for me. Not only did I learn a great deal, but it was an opportunity for me to enrich my knowledge of a topic about which I already felt deeply, and in which I am soon to be involved. Furthermore, I enriched my pre-existing profound interest in humanitarian practices, and at the same time may have also found a future vocation in the process. It is in this way, nevertheless, frustrating not to be able to treat each and every aspect of this fascinating topic.

The issue of death penalty, with its southern roots so deeply sown within the culture and history of the United States, will surely be debated for many years to come.

* 93 Cesari, Isabelle (2002). Les mineurs délinquants et la peine de mort aux Etats-Unis. Paris : Nicolas Philippe. Page 165

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