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Here’s why millennials don’t (and shouldn’t) support the death penalty

AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen

AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen

Over the past few years, criminal justice reform has become a hotly debated topic in conservative and libertarian circles, and repealing the death penalty has become an important issue – especially among millennials.

A recent poll by YouGov found that of all the age groups, those under 30 are least supportive of the death penalty, with less than half in support of it. A 2015 Pew Research poll found similarly low support among millennials for the death penalty, with their support for the practice dropping eight percentage points in the past four years.

Why has millennials’ support for the death penalty dropped? A number of reasons could be driving this shift.

Controversial Drugs

Recently, the controversy has surrounded the execution drugs, which have become increasingly hard to come by. However, even when states acquire and use the approved lethal injection chemicals, the results are sometimes botched, as was the case with Clayton Lockett. Details released from his execution paint a painful picture, as he suffered for more than an hour before dying of a heart attack.

Now there is a stand-off between states and the federal government, as states like Arizona and Nebraska cannot get the drugs necessary to perform executions.

If capital punishment is exercised, there is no assurance that the government can properly and humanely execute its prisoners.

Cost on Society

As the student debt bubble blooms ever larger, young Americans are increasingly concerned with where their money is going. Not only has the practice of capital punishment become more controversial – it has become more expensive.

Pennsylvania is one example. Since 1978, the state has only conducted three executions, but according to a recent study, it has likely spent $816 million on its death penalty! The burden of these costs falls on the taxpayers, who not only have to cover the cost of the controversial execution drugs, but the lengthy judicial process that must occur before the execution day (if it ever comes).

Student debt is rising, jobs are becoming harder to come by, and the millennial generation must make priorities when it comes to spending our money. In this global economy, we have more important things to be putting our finances behind instead of botched executions.

Imperfect Forensics

We all love series like “CSI” and “Law & Order,” but in reality, forensics is an imperfect science that is open to corruption. There are countless examples of botched forensics that have led to false convictions, a number of them in death penalty cases.

Last year, the FBI came clean about the fact that forensic examiners in its elite hair comparison unit had overstated evidence in 95 percent of their court cases in the decades leading up to 2000. Of these cases, 32 resulted in death sentences and 14 are already dead, either by execution or of natural causes.

Perhaps the most famous forensic mishap is the story of Annie Dookhan, a chemist at a drug lab in Boston. At first, she was only charged with not “properly following test protocol,” but it later surfaced that she had purposefully manipulated and compromised over 34,000 court cases.

Setting aside the astounding cost of mistakes and corruption perpetrated by individuals like Dookhan and the FBI Forensics team, their mistakes have impacted hundreds of lives in the criminal justice system. If we are to have trust in our justice system, young Americans must be able to trust the tests and protocols used to put individuals behind bars and, more importantly, on death row.

Simple Innocence

Perhaps the biggest concern with the death penalty weighing on millennials’ minds is innocence. The National Registry of Exonerations is a database of nearly 2,000 exonerations compiled by The University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University between 1989 and the present day.

The registry documents a gut-wrenching reality: Way too many people in the U.S. are wrongfully convicted. This is especially true in death penalty cases. Per the Death Penalty Information Center, over 155 individuals have been wrongly sentenced to die and exonerated, while others with serious claims of innocence have been executed. To put that in perspective, for every nine people sentenced to death, one person is exonerated. Those are not great odds when innocent lives are on the line.

With this track record, young Americans have good reason to question giving government the permission to determine whose life is valuable and when it should be extinguished. How can we be the land of the free if we are ranked fifth in the world in number of executions?

If we are to remain the leader of the free world, we must set the example when it comes to the justice system. We must prove that we have faith in our justice system because we know that those within it are taking all measures possible to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It is time to start a discussion about the death penalty.


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