Capital punishment is punishment by death for committing a crime. Since the early 1800′s, most executions have resulted from convictions for murder. The death penalty has also been imposed for such serious crimes as armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, and treason. People disagree about whether capital punishment is moral or is effective in discouraging crime.
In the late 1990′s, 38 states of the United States had laws that allowed the death penalty. These laws were influenced by a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The court had banned the death penalty as it was then imposed. It ruled that “the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty” was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th and 14th amendments to the Constitution. But the court left open the possibility that the death penalty might be constitutional–if imposed for certain crimes and applied according to clear standards.
After the 1972 decision, many state legislatures passed new capital punishment laws designed to satisfy the Supreme Court’s requirements. These laws limit the death penalty to murder and to other specified crimes that result in a person’s death. Such crimes include armed robbery, hijacking, and kidnapping. The laws of several states specify the circumstances under which a judge or jury may impose the death penalty.
In 1976, the court upheld death sentences for three men convicted of murder under new laws in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. It ruled that capital punishment for murder was “not unconstitutionally severe.” But the court struck down laws that made the death penalty mandatory (required) for certain crimes. In addition to state laws on capital punishment, the death penalty may be imposed under federal laws or military laws.
Capital punishment was widely used during the Middle Ages, especially for crimes against the state and church. In the 1700′s, England had more than 200 capital offenses. Most were abolished in the 1800′s. The United Kingdom abolished capital punishment in 1969. Canada did so in 1976. The United States is the only Western industrialized nation where executions still take place.
According to the organization Amnesty International, about 100 nations either have formally abolished capital punishment or have done so in effect. These countries include most European and Latin American nations. About 90 countries still permit capital punishment, including most developing nations.
Many people oppose the death penalty, chiefly because they consider it cruel. Critics also warn against the risk of executing mistakenly convicted people. Supporters of capital punishment believe that, in certain circumstances, people who take human life deserve to lose their own lives. Many supporters argue that the threat of death discourages crime more effectively than the threat of prison does. But studies have shown no unusual increase in murders when the death penalty is abolished.
Hundreds of people have been executed in the United States since the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in 1976. In addition, several thousand have been sentenced to death and are awaiting the outcome of legal appeals.