Mercyhurst University’s Criminal Justice Week gives students a unique opportunity to attend a variety of talks in relation to the ethical issues of criminal proceedings in United States and abroad.
On March 13, students were invited to attend a discussion facilitated by Emmaleigh Kirchner, Ph.D., assistant professor of Criminal Justice, regarding the ethics of the death penalty.
Kirchner has been actively involved with the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
The society advocates for a humane and just correctional system throughout Pennsylvania and the United States.
She has also presented at regional and national conferences and has previously taught courses on violence, victimology, statistics, corrections, juveniles and research methods.
To start off the conversation, Kirchner posed a question: “Is the death penalty moral?”
With support from the Evelyn Lincoln Institute for Ethics and Society, students who attended were encouraged to give their own views and engage in a meaningful discussion.
The main ethical issues brought up surrounding putting a person to death included the economic cost, the role of religion, the method used and the severity of the crime committed.
On the same note, students discussed social and economic factors, such as the role of poverty and education, the public defender system and the ability to get a good lawyer.
Another issue raised was that of deterrence.
While some feel the death penalty is extremely useful in dissuading crime, Kirchner referenced the fact that the highest first-degree murder rates occur in the South, where the death penalty is most widespread, and the lowest in the Northeast, where there is the least capital punishment.
Indeed, many students’ minds were changed upon realizing that the economic cost of keeping a person in prison for life is often less than the cost of putting a person to death.
“The average annual cost for housing a prisoner is in the region of $42,000. Cases involving the death penalty have wide scope for extensive appeals, as well as the actual cost of the lethal injection administered, and the wages of those involved. Thus putting a prisoner to death can reach the billions,” Kirchner said.
In fact, Kirchner explained that this is a driving force in the movement of many moderate or conservative-minded people away from the death penalty in recent years.
Verna Ehret, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Ethics and Society, put forward the point of racial bias.
While this aspect of the issue is debatable, Ehret said that “it is difficult to talk about the death penalty issue by itself. We need to compare the numbers and explore the surrounding issues, of which racial bias is one.”
Indeed, the Death Penalty Information Center reports that there is a disproportionate amount of black prisoners on death row, and a black person is more likely to receive a death sentence if their victim is white.
Four prisoners have been put to death in 2018, three of which occurred in Texas. It is one of the 31 states that currently allows capital punishment.
Though 31 states allow capital punishment, only seven of those states have carried out executions, 31 of them, since the start of 2016.
The last execution in Pennsylvania took place in 1999 in Philadelphia, when Gary Heinik was executeed by lethal injection.
Following the period of nationwide barring of the death penalty from 1972 to 1976, the Supreme Court case law now puts capital punishment on the table for certain federal crimes and first-degree murder within the individual states.
In terms of Western countries, few compare to the United States in their stance, with the U.S. being more comparable to nations such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia or China in its provisions.
“I found the discussion to be very informative, with emphasis on both sides of the issue — for and against,” said Julia Wrest, freshman Intelligence Studies major. “It was interesting to see that we could not find one ideal answer. Considering all the lawmakers, officers and experts we have working in this area, it is telling of the depth of the ethical issues that we have not reached a conclusive resolution.”