Death to Death

The death penalty is bad policy.  It is unjust, ineffective, outrageously expensive and potentially murderous.  It needs to go.

I was not always opposed to capital punishment.  For most of my life I supported it.  I looked at a long list of crimes – murder, rape, drug pushing and severe white collar crimes – and liked the idea of killing the bastards behind them.  This same kind of visceral reaction has underpinned continuing support of the death penalty in the United States where executing criminals expresses society’s outrage.  However, emotion is not always a good basis for government policy.  In the case of capital punishment, our fury has led us astray.  Here’s why:

It’s totally irreversible.  Although unjust imprisonment is a terrible injustice, execution is even worse.  This issue is the origin of many other problems.

It’s expensive.   If you give people adequate protection during trial, it costs more to execute than imprison.  In Maryland, each execution costs $2-3 million per case to try.  In Indiana, the death penalty costs 38 percent more than incarceration for life.  Capital punishment costs California $137 million a year, North Carolina $11 million, and Florida $51 million.  While these costs could be reduced by removing legal protections, that increases the risk of executing an innocent person.

It’s murder.  Killing the non-guilty is not a trivial problem — and given the deep flaws in the criminal justice system, there is a disturbingly high incidence of questionable convictions.  To date, almost 150 death-row inmates have been exonerated by new evidence in the United States.  The system is so flawed that the American Law Institute – which supported the death penalty starting in the early 1960s – ended support for it.  In October 2009, it said that the United States did not have “a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.”  The enormous stakes of capital trials make mistakes unacceptable, since killing the innocent is nothing less than state-sanctioned murder.

It’s dangerous.  Giving government the power to execute citizens could be abused.  Although in a democratic society this is rarely a problem, during times of extreme turmoil it could be subverted for political reasons or abused during times of panic.

It’s ineffective.  Although executing people removes them from the streets forever, there is little evidence that it deters serious crime.  According to a poll of the nation’s police chiefs, the death penalty is ineffective.  Only one percent of the them thought executing people was useful.

Given all of the problems capital punishment presents, it’s hard to justify as a sound way to fight crime.  Although the worst criminals deserve to suffer, execution is a bad way to deal with the problem.  There is a better way.

If the goal is to keep terrible people off the streets forever, life imprisonment without any chance of release is a much better alternative.  It’s less expensive than execution, does not risk killing the innocent and does not give the state the power to kill.  Life in prison is no joke –  being jailed until the end of your days without any hope of freedom, success, love or real happiness is a terrible fate.  The worst criminals will live through the decades in despair, growing old never knowing what is good and beautiful in life.  This is sweet revenge enough – we do not need to demean ourselves by becoming their executioner.

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