Friday, September 23, 2011

Abolish the death penalty

Too many problems, both practical and moral, plague the practice

It took me a few days to come up what I wanted to say on the topic of the death penalty. The issue has been in the news on three separate fronts -- it seems fitting to talk about it now.

Up until now, I had been a wary supporter of the death penalty in some cases. The attacks of 9/11 led me to that conclusion. Had we caught Osama bin Laden, I would have wanted him to go on trial and to be put to death. But in recent years, I’ve realized that this sentiment, though something I may want for one individual, shouldn’t be implemented in this way. Our emotional response, though justified, doesn’t override the rights of others, even those convicted of heinous crimes.

I understand the death penalty -- the seemingly “equal” justice of it (a “death for a death”), the satisfaction of seeing a killer be taken from this life into the next to see their maker, exterminated for the crimes they’ve committed. I “get” that emotion, that need for vengeance, and (what seems like) ultimate justice under both the court of law as well as the court of the victims’ families’ minds.

But its mark on society, its troubled implementation, its costs, and its overall effectiveness, all point to one singular conclusion: the death penalty has got to go. It simply isn’t good to hold onto any longer, to carry it on in spite of its significant problems.

Practically speaking, the death penalty simply doesn’t “work.” Let’s first define what “working” would look like. For the death penalty to function properly, we’d expect the process to be quick and relatively cost efficient; we’d expect it to be a proper punishment for those destined to face it; and it’d have to be an effective deterrent for future crimes.

But for states that implement it, the death penalty is none of those things. The costs for states with death row inmates are, on average, substantially higher than the costs to house a prisoner serving a life sentence. One study shows that the costs are more than $10 million per state that implements it. California alone spends $130 million on its death penalty system, a significant cost for a state that has had huge budget problems.

It’s effectiveness is put into question, too, especially since states that implement tend to have higher rates of murder than the 12 states that don’t. That fact isn’t based solely on averages either, but also geographically: in most cases, death penalty states that border non-death penalty states have higher rates of murder. West Virginia has a lower rate than Virginia; North Dakota has a lower rate than South Dakota; Rhode Island has a lower rate than Connecticut; and Wisconsin has a lower rate than Illinois. In each case, the first state mentioned doesn’t have a death penalty; the other state does, or in the last example, did.

That last comparison, however, comes with a caveat: in 2000, Illinois initiated a moratorium on the death penalty. In July of this year, the death penalty was officially abolished. In 2010, the state’s murder rate was 5.5 per 100,000 people. In 1998, two years before the moratorium, the rate was 8.4 per 100,000, indicating a sharp decline following the institution of its moratorium. For comparison’s sake, Wisconsin’s murder rate in 2010 2.7 per 100,000; it was 3.6 in 1998.

These stats (and others like them) indicate that there isn’t a correlation between deterrence and lower rates of murder; in fact, if anything they show the opposite, though there are misnomers for both pro- and non-death penalty states. Still, the evidence seems to show that states with the death penalty, on average, have higher rates of murder than states without it, indicating deterrence is failing in those states.

There’s also the question of whether death serves as a proper punishment for the crimes committed, though this is less empirical and more substantial thought than anything else. Regardless, the question still begs to be asked: is death too “good” of a punishment for these offenders? For me personally, I’d hate to spend my entire life in a prison cell, removed from society and forced to live the life of a prisoner. Death may be a salvation rather than a punishment for many of these offenders. Does the death penalty serve as an easy way out for these violent offenders?

Those are just the practical arguments against the death penalty, and they form a pretty good case against the practice on their own. But there is more to be said, from a moral point of view, that should cause us to rethink this method of punishment in our legal system.

Firstly, the death penalty turns the state into a hypocrite. We tell citizens that the act of murder is a terrible thing, that it’s unacceptable in our society to kill another unless it’s in self defense. The punishment for this crime? We will ourselves kill a defenseless individual. It doesn’t make any sense to say that all killings are wrong, except those killings that we carry out. It also provides justification to those without a conscience that the idea of SOME killing as a path towards justice outside of the law is acceptable, a notion that should not be disseminated.

Second, the death penalty is absolute -- that is, there isn’t any going back once it’s carried out. New evidence or technological advances in forensic investigation techniques may determine an individual who was executed was actually innocent -- yet, nothing can be done about it. The system of punishment that claims to be just leaves no room for justice for those struggling to prove their innocence. Justice under the law shouldn’t have a time frame like this; it should be indefinite.

A jury of your peers won’t ever be considered infallible; they can be wrong, can render a judgment that implicates you in a crime you didn’t commit. Should they be particularly disgusted with your crime, they will submit to the court that you should be put to death. This happens more often than people like to admit -- and yet, we just let it slide, pretend it’s no big deal?

A jury’s mistakes shouldn’t result in an innocent’s death. We should recognize this infallibility as possible, err on the side of caution rather than on the side of preferred vengeance. Support for a system that has been shown time and again to have made mistakes puts the entire idea of justice under the law on its head. Both the practical and moral reasons behind abolishing the death penalty make more sense than keeping the flawed practice in place.

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