Do criminals deserve a choice regarding the death penalty? 

The United States has one of the largest incarceration rates in the world. With so many prisoners, the morality of the death penalty and life sentences for incarceration is a topic that has been long debated. Photo by Donald Tong from Pexels.

There has been debate surrounding the ethics of the death penalty for years. I personally don’t believe the state should have the jurisdiction to take away human lives. Autonomy is a right, not a privilege. With the power to end lives, the state could execute someone who has been wrongly convicted. And even if the prisoner is actually guilty, their life is still valuable and worth living. 

Instead of debating whether prisoners should get the death penalty or prison for life, we should grant prisoners who have committed crimes that lead to life in prison the ability to choose the death penalty as an alternative. While many may choose life in prison, it at least gives those who cannot bear life in prison an escape that does not in any way negatively impact the majority of citizens. This is not to say the death of anyone, including prisoners, is not tragic. But we should reevaluate why we imprison convicts for years, or even decades, causing lifelong misery for many. 

This issue comes down to the true purpose of penal systems. Penal systems should exist for two main purposes. The first is rehabilitation. Prisoners are still people and deserve a chance at becoming a better version of themselves. It is clear prisoners are often not given a chance at rehabilitation if their sentence is the death penalty or life in prison. This raises the question of whether states should even be able to sentence someone to lifetime confinement. With no hope of getting out of prison, prisoners are less inclined to grow and learn from their past mistakes. It’s easier to work towards self-improvement when there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We ought to reform our current prison system so prisoners have a better chance to improve upon themselves. However, some prisoners have committed truly dangerous crimes and may do so again, so we still need to prioritize public safety. 

Prisons need to balance rehabilitation and keeping prisoners contained for safety reasons. Because of this balance, a jail sentence can be extremely disheartening for prisoners with long sentences who feel like there’s no need to improve since release is so far away. Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels.

The second purpose of penal systems is to keep our world safe. This purpose is satisfied by both the death penalty and life in prison, because if a prisoner is in prison or dead, there is no chance they can commit crimes again. Unless we want our prisoners to suffer and feel guilt for the rest of their lives, we should allow them to choose if they want to die. Giving prisoners this option is the least we can do, especially when any chance of rehabilitation has been stripped away. 

While I do believe most prisoners would ultimately choose life in prison over death, I don’t think that should stop us from providing them with a choice. Forcing someone to stay alive in prison for the rest of their lives is a form of punishment. Saying death allows prisoners to  
“get out easy” just reinforces the idea that prisoners are in prison to suffer. While it is truly heartbreaking that some prisoners would choose death over prison for life, some prisoners cannot live with the guilt they feel as a consequence of their crimes. If they are going to be in prison for the rest of their lives anyway, why can’t they be provided with an escape from a lifetime of guilt and suffering? Our current penal system must be reformed, and the idea that the sole purpose of prison is punishment must be eradicated. 

It is often difficult to find empathy and respect for prisoners — especially prisoners who have committed crimes that lead to a lifetime in prison. Recently deceased artist Julie Green painted prisoners’ last meals before their execution. These paintings demonstrate how prisoners are humans too — people who have favorite meals just like everyone else. Everyone deserves autonomy over their own body, and prisoners should not be forced to die or spend a lifetime in prison. They should be able to choose for themselves. Both sentences — the death penalty and life in prison — impact the rest of the world identically, so I pose the question: Why can’t prisoners decide how they will spend the rest of their lives if they are being confined for life anyway? 

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