How should we punish criminals? Should we have the death penalty for the worst crimes? Or is the death penalty unacceptable in our modern societies? These kind of questions have puzzled thinkers for centuries, but the death penalty continues to be one of the most controversial and debated issues of the 21st century. Let’s discuss this on today’s episode of Thinking in English!

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Vocabulary List

To punish (v) – to cause someone who has done something wrong or committed a crime to suffer, by hurting them, forcing them to pay money, sending them to prison, etc

The teacher punished his class by giving them extra work

Rehabilitation (n) – the act of returning someone to a good, healthy, or normal life or condition after they have been in prison, been very ill, etc

Prisons should focus on rehabilitation of prisoners so that they can lead normal lives when they leave prison

Execution (n) – the legal punishment of killing someone

Execution is still the penalty in some countries for murder

Abolition (n) – the act of ending an activity or custom officially

He fought for the abolition of the death penalty in Britain

Disproportionately (adv) – in a way that is too large or too small in relation to something else

The disease disproportionately affects young men

Retribution (n) – deserved and severe punishment

He was seeking retribution for the crime committed against him

Justice (n) – fairness in the way people are dealt with; the system of laws in a country that judges and punishes people

The police are doing all they can do to bring those responsible for the crime to justice 

Innocent (adj) – not guilty of a particular crime

I firmly believe that she is innocent of the crime

What do we do with people who commit crimes? This is a problem that has puzzled politicians, philosophers, and the greatest thinkers for as long as we’ve had laws. Many people might consider it a simple issue – punish criminals. Other people support the idea of rehabilitation instead of punishment. And more critical thinkers like myself question the entire system of laws and justice – sometimes the laws we have are not very good, are likely to change in the future, and unfairly punish certain groups of people. Think about the thousands of people imprisoned in the USA for use of the drug cannabis, despite it being legal in many of the county’s states, or all the people throughout history punished for things that are no longer crimes in most of the world (like being homosexual).

However, when it comes to the most serious, horrific, and appalling criminals, the debate is even more divided. What do we do with people who commit crimes so atrocious that people believe they should never be allowed in public again? What do we do with murderers who are intent on harming again? Should we have the death penalty for these people? The death penalty is the term given to the execution of criminals for their crimes. It is one of the oldest and most controversial elements of modern legal systems. On this episode of Thinking in English I’m going to give a brief history and context to the death penalty, before trying to investigate a few of the key debates surrounding this issue. Now, the death penalty and social issues like this are exactly the sort of topics that could come up in English proficiency tests like IELTS or TOEFL! So I hope you find this episode interesting! Listen to the different arguments I make, think in English, and decide for yourself whether or not we should have the death penalty!

Death has likely been used for tens of thousands of years as a punishment for breaking the rules of a society. The earliest proof we have of death penalty, a legal punishment given for certain specific crimes, comes from the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon in the Eighteenth century B.C which made 25 different crimes punishable by death. Interestingly, while crimes like helping slaves escape or cheating on your husband or wife were punished with death, murder was not a crime given the death penalty! Many societies since that time have incorporated the death penalty into their legal systems. At the most extreme level, the seventh century BC Draconian Code of Athens made death the only punishment for all crime! 

There were various different methods of execution for carrying out a death sentence: in early history crucifixion, drowning, beating, burning, and impalement were all commonly used. Death penalty continued to be used throughout medieval and and early modern European history. In eighteenth century Britain 222 different crimes could be punished by death: including relatively minor offenses like stealing, cutting down someone else’s tree, or illegally hunting rabbits. As the punishments were so harsh, British judges and courts rarely convicted anyone for these crimes. Eventually, people realised this system was broken and the laws were changed!

In 1764, Italian Cesare Beccaria published a famous paper called Essays on Crimes and Punishments, which was the first well known and influential call for the abolition of capital punishment and the death penalty. In fact, his essay remains the most influential attack on the death penalty ever written, as following him other philosophers and political leaders began to think about the issue! Despite growing thoughts about the whether the death penalty was right or wrong, the founding fathers of the USA allowed for it when writing the US constitution in 1787. Since then various countries and regions around the world have banned the death penalty, changed methods of execution, and tried to consider whether such a punishment should be used in modern societies. 

In fact, most countries have now officially abolished the death penalty. It is completely banned in 107 countries, banned for ordinary crimes in seven others (but still allowed for things like war crimes or genocide), and 27 have not used it for such a long time. However, although most countries have abolished capital punishment, over 60% of the world’s population actually live in countries that still use it. This is because some of the most populous nations, including China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Iran, Japan, and parts of the USA still use it. Abolition of the death penalty was often adopted during poltiical change: which is why most countries banned it while becoming democracies. This is also why Asian and African countries are more likely to still use it as they are less likely to be democratic! 

There are a number of different debates surrounding the death penalty. The major, and perhaps overarching, question is whether the death penalty should be legal. Supporters of the death penalty tend to argue that it is an important tool for keeping law and order, prevents crime, and is cheaper than prison. Opponents tend to argue it does not stop crime, gives governments too much power, and disproportionately targets the poor and minorities. I’ll talk a little more about these arguments shortly. However, I first want to tell you some of the other related questions that you should also think about. Should life in prison with no release replace the death penalty? Does the death penalty deter crime? Does the death penalty help victims families? Should the death penalty be abolished because innocent people may be executed? Is the death penalty immoral? All of these are important issues to think about when trying to answer whether we should use the death penalty or not!

I’m now going to introduce two sides to this very complicated question. Should the death penalty be legal? I will focus on a few of the issues I previously mentioned: is life in prison a better alternative? Does it stop crime? Does it bring justice for the victims and their families? Is it moral? And what about innocent people? Listen to my arguments and decide what you think yourself!

Let’s start with the whether the death penalty stops crime. One of the main justifications of the punishment is that it reduces serious crime as people are not willing to risk death. Supporters argue that a harsh penalty is needed to stop people committing offenses like murder or terrorism. However, opponents state that there is no proof of this. Many murders are unplanned, and people who commit terrorism are often prepared to die for their beliefs anyway. 

Is the death penalty needed for justice? This is often called retribution. It is the idea that the death penalty is needed to bring justice for the victims of crimes, their families, and the society as well. Supporters argue the “eye for an eye” (your punishment should be the same as your crime) philosophy is appropriate. It balances the wrong done by the criminal. If you take a life, your life should also be taken. Opponents argue that rather than punishment, the legal system should focus on reform as this is more productive. Innocent people may also be executed before they have a chance to be cleared. They argue that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

I just mentioned innocent people. Our legal systems are not perfect, and they often make mistakes. Evidence may be missed or emerge in the future, and new technology developed. Things like DNA testing and fingerprint technology did not exist in the past, but if they are used now they can sometimes prove that someone sentenced to death was actually innocent. In fact, 150 Americans sentenced to death since 1973 have later been found not guilty. Can we risk even executing one innocent person to carry out so-called justice? 

Instead, life time imprisonment, otherwise known as life without parole, has been suggested as an alternative. Perhaps imprisoning someone for their entire life is a more severe punishment as well as being more humane. Life without parole allows criminals to spend the rest of their lives thinking about what they did, and removes the possibility of executing an innocent person. One the other hand, life time in prison could be seen as a more expensive death penalty, and not harsh enough for the worst criminals.

My final set of arguments will revolve around the morality of the death penalty.  Religious, philosophical, and political thinkers for centuries have debated whether it is moral for a human to ever kill another person. Is it moral to kill someone in the name of justice, and can a good government ever execute people? Supporters of the death penalty argue that it is a moral punishment, found in most major religious texts, promotes good and rejects evil. On the other hand, opponents believe that it is never moral for a human to kill another human, in any circumstances. 

I have given you a brief and very basic introduction to the debates around the death penalty. The content of this episode is perfect for the kind of arguments you will need to make in English proficiency tests. I do encourage you to research more yourself though. There are much more eloquent and detailed arguments and justifications out there for each of the points I made!

Final Thought

On this episode of Thinking in English, I tried to introduce some of the history and context to the debate around the death penalty, before giving you different ways of thinking about the question “should the death penalty be legal?” It is certainly not an easy question to answer, and I’m sure people’s opinions will change throughout their lives.

Does your country use the death penalty? Do you think the death penalty should be used in modern society? Is it ever ok for a person to kill another person? Is prison a good alternative to death sentences? What do you think? 

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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