Jan 12, 2018 in Law

Corrections Today: Fixing the Problem of Death Row

The United States is the country, where death penalty is applied for the harshest crimes. Thousands of people are awaiting their death sentence in jails. The number of prisoners on death row increases every year. Despite the fact that more states eliminate death penalty from their criminal justice books, it remains an issue of major economic and social significance. On the one hand, death penalty greatly contributes to the problem of prison overcrowding and costs. On the other hand, the conditions of imprisonment for those on death row are close to cruel and do not fit in the overall philosophy of the U.S. system of corrections. The best the government and correctional policymakers can do is advocate for the broader changes in the entire system of criminal justice, towards using alternative and shorter sentences for non-significant crimes, while sentencing the most dangerous criminals to life without parole and eliminating death penalty for all crimes.

The Situational, Organizational, and Environmental Context of the Problem

The United States has been developing in the context, where death penalty was one of the basic criminal justice norms. "English colonists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries came from a country in which death was the penalty for a list of crimes that seems shockingly long today" (Banner, 2009, p.3). At that time, Europeans were executed for almost all crimes, including arson, rape, and counterfeiting (Banner, 2009). At present, it is difficult to imagine a defendant, who is sentenced to death for having raped a woman or having stolen a $1,000,000 from a bank. Nevertheless, death penalty remains a distinctive feature of the criminal justice system in the U.S., mainly because it is believe to deter crime. In the meantime, the debate over the appropriateness of death penalty continues to escalate. States gradually abandon death penalty as an instrument of criminal justice, choosing alternative sentences, including life without parole.

The situational and organizational contexts of the death penalty problem are quite controversial. At the organizational level, death row inmates are isolated from regular prisoners; they do not participate in any educational or employment programs (Death Penalty Information Center, n.d.). They spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells, and the overall time they spend on death row may reach an unprecedented 20 years (Death Penalty Information Center, n.d.). In terms of the situational context, the number of inmates on death row keeps growing, even though many states have recently abandoned death penalty. Compared to 517 inmates on death row in 1968, the current system of corrections serves the needs of 3,125 death row inmates (Death Penalty Information Center, 2013). The number of inmates on death row constantly increases, presenting a major challenge to the entire system of corrections.

Problems Associated with the Issue/Challenge

It seems that death penalty is related to law enforcement and criminal justice much more than it is related to the systems of corrections. An impression persists that the system of corrections simply fulfills the mission imposed on it by courts. In reality, it is the correctional system that bears the pressure of death penalty and faces the biggest challenges because of it. First, it is the issue of costs: as mentioned earlier, some inmates spend up to 20 years on death row, thus increasing the costs of imprisonment and their burden on taxpayers. Second, it is the problem of prison overcrowding, as the growing number of death row inmates raises the existing tensions and makes the conditions of confinement even worse. Third, it is the problem of philosophy, as the system of corrections rests on the following pillars: incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, and reintegration. Apparently, death penalty meets only the first two criteria of the correctional philosophy and, even then, its impacts on deterrence are quite ambiguous. This is why correctional officers experience so many difficulties with death row, and these difficulties are recurrent.

Examination, Evaluation, and Analysis of the Issue

The Problem of Costs

Because of the growing number of inmates on death row, the system of corrections is facing increased costs. These costs further increase the burden of expenses on U.S. taxpayers, as they are constantly torn between numerous social priorities. That death row takes a lion's share of the criminal justice budget is a well-known fact. Putting the court and appeals expenses aside, each execution may cost as much as $3.2 million for taxpayers (Dieter, n.d.). The New York Department of Correctional Services estimates that death penalty may cost it almost $118 million per year (Dieter, n.d.). It is three times more expensive than keeping a regular inmate in the highest security jail for 40 years (Dieter, n.d.). Even life imprisonment without a possibility of parole, when inmates are kept in jails for decades, does not exceed $1 million per prisoner (Appleton & Grover, 2007). It seems that the argument against life sentence as an alternative to death penalty is economically invalid. The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the American death row inmates are quickly ageing (Death Penalty Information Center, 2013). By the moment of execution, many inmates are too old to remember their crimes and even names. Executing elderly inmates does not have any sense, but the system of corrections must keep these inmates within its premises and provide them with expensive medical and social support, even if they are to die.

The Problem of Overcrowding

Another thing about death row is that it greatly contributes to the problem of overcrowding – a recurrent theme that has been impacting the system of corrections for decades. It is overcrowding that turns prisons into painful and harsh experiences for thousands of inmates (Barkan & Bryjak, 2011). Many U.S. prisons and jails hold more inmates than they can reasonably house (Barkan & Bryjak, 2011). Not surprisingly, correctional officers cannot ensure that all inmates live in equally standard conditions that do not threaten their lives and health. Overcrowding also contributes to physical violence behind the bars (Barkan & Bryjak, 2011). Even though a prison is not expected to be as pleasant as a country club, correctional officers are still obliged to guarantee inmates' survival.

The life of an inmate on death row is far from being pleasant. According to Barkan and Bryjak (2011), death row inmates live separately, in solitary confinement, which has profound impacts on their physical and psychological wellbeing. "The psychological impact of death row confinement is such that most condemned prisoners gradually waste away as human beings. By the time they reach the deathwatch, the condemned lead lives not much richer than that of a maggot" (Barkan & Bryjak, 2011, p.471). Correctional officers cannot change these conditions without the state's broad support. Inmates do not have to wait for 20 years, until they are executed, and tolerate the unbearable conditions of imprisonment, simply because they were sentenced to death.

The Problem of Philosophy

The final problem is that death penalty does not fit into the overall philosophy of the corrections system. Since its inception, the system of correction has been based on the principles of justice, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and incarceration. The only principle death penalty seems to meet is that of incapacitation. In no way does death penalty help the inmates to restore their constructive activity and re-enter the free community as full citizens (Stohr & Walsh, 2011). Death penalty simply leaves the system of corrections a single chance to rehabilitate and reintegrate the inmate back into the free community. Besides, the risks of erroneous sentencing decisions remain quite high. Since 1973 and until 2000, 69 people were released from death row, because their innocence was confirmed (Wilson, 2000). In this situation, the correctional officer assumes responsibility for keeping an innocent person imprisoned but alive, even when that inmate claims to have done nothing criminal.

Decisions and Actions by Policymakers and Government

Needless to say, the system of corrections is facing tough challenges because of death penalty. As a result, correctional officers and policymakers must finally eliminate death penalty from the criminal justice books and develop alternative sentencing options to avoid overcrowding and faulty executions. Certainly, these changes should be complex and should not be limited to death row inmates. Basically, death penalty must give place to life imprisonment, with or without parole. At the same time, milder sentences should be replaced with release on parole, community service, or probation. However, the system of corrections must implement severe measures against those, who violate the conditions of probation. In this way, the government and policymakers will reduce the human and financial pressures on the system of corrections, while protecting the community from unnecessary crime risks.


Death penalty is the problem of the entire criminal justice system, but it is the system of corrections that suffers the most. Death penalty increases the costs of corrections. Thousands of inmates spend years on death row. Executions and violence do not fit in the overall philosophy of corrections, which is based on the principles of rehabilitation and reintegration. Today, government officials and policymakers must advocate for the elimination of death penalty from the national criminal justice books. Individuals who have committed less harsh offenses can be released on parole, while the cruelest offenders must be sentenced to life without parole. In this way, the costs of corrections will decrease, and the risks of prison overcrowding will be minimized.

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