The Symbolic Meaning of the Death Penalty



Fifty-five thousand persons die in traffic accidents every year in the United States. More than 20,000 persons are murdered. Among young blacks, murder is the most frequent cause of death. Nonetheless, the death penalty is imposed on very few murderers, and of those, fewer than five have been executed per year in the last ten years (1973–1983). Given these facts, it is clear that the main significance of the death penalty both to retentionists and to abolitionists is symbolic: The material effects of capital punishment, as far as society is concerned, are negligible. Its symbolic significance is not.* Capital punishment is important as a sign from which one can infer social attitudes and that is meant to express them. Wherefore it is a prominent issue.


Criminal Justice Death Penalty Symbolic Meaning Life Imprisonment Double Jeopardy 
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© Ernest van den Haag and John P. Conrad 1983

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