Capital punishment is a practice in which prisoners are executed in accordance with judicial practice when they are convicted of committing what is known as a “capital crime.” Capital crimes are crimes deemed so heinous that they should be punishable by death. People may also use the term “death penalty” to refer to capital punishment. Worldwide, this practice is extremely controversial, with a variety of concerns ranging from human rights to economic efficiency being raised in discussions about this type of punishment.
The practice of executing people for certain crimes is very old; in fact, the term itself dates to a Latin root, capitalis, which means “of the head,” a reference to a common execution method used in Roman times. At various points in history, a wide range of crimes have been punishable by death, including rape, murder, treason, mutiny, and theft. In the military, death sentences for “cowardice” were used as recently as the First World War, when soldiers were shot by firing squads assembled from the men who served with them, providing both a punishment and a warning.
As early as the 1800s, some members of society were pushing for abolition of the death penalty, arguing that it was an inhumane method of punishment. Many abolitionists were also involved with animal welfare organizations and antislavery organizations. Their efforts were at least partially successful; by the beginning of the 21st century, only 58 nations were practicing the death penalty, and several of these nations had very restrictive terms which had to be met in order for capital punishment to be an option. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States lead the world in executions annually.
Arguments for capital punishment include the suggestion that it acts as a deterrent, by reminding criminals that they can pay the ultimate price for some claims. It is also touted in some regions as a safety measure which effectively removes people who have committed horrific crimes from the street without having to worry about their release on parole in the future. Some supporters also argue that execution provides closure to family members of victims. Furthermore, supporters argue, it is possible to administer the death penalty justly and humanely.
People who oppose the death penalty argue that it is unevenly applied, creating the potential for erroneous executions of innocent people. Opponents are also perturbed by differing standards in judicial practice; for example, some nations allow capital punishment for crimes such as drug trafficking, and in some nations where homosexuality remains criminalized, it is punishable by death. Opponents also argue that administering capital punishment justly and fairly is tremendously expensive, and it is more cost effective to focus on incarceration.