Why I oppose the death penalty


Death penalty debate re-ignited in Illinois, where Governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of 150 death row inmates to life in prison:

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Saying the death penalty system was broken, the governor of Illinois granted clemency to more than 150 death row inmates on Saturday, a move unprecedented since capital punishment was reinstated and likely to inflame a national death penalty debate.

[ . . . ]

“How many more cases of wrongful convictions have to occur before we can all agree that this system in Illinois is broken?” Ryan told a cheering audience at Northwestern University Law School that included several wrongfully convicted former death row inmates.

The blanket commutation follows an examination of the state’s capital punishment system ordered nearly three years ago after investigations found that 13 prisoners on death row were innocent.

As an opponent of the death penalty under most circumstances, I’d have to say that overall, this is a good move.

But since I seem to have sparked a lot of reader anger with my posts on gun control, I guess I’d better defend this position before I get jumped on, too.

My opposition to the death penalty is based on 4 key reasons:

1) It doesn’t deter violent crime.

General deterrence only works if a sanction is applied rapidly and consistently, neither of which is the case with the death penalty. If life imprisonment isn’t a harsh enough penalty to deter people from committing violent crimes, than death isn’t likely to change that. Furthermore, only calculated, premeditated crimes can be theoretically deterred by the threat of any kind of sanctions, since the psychos and the unstable people rarely do a cost-benefit analysis before committing their crimes.

Research has consistently supported this position, that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime. Surveys of police indicated that they do not see it as important in fighting crime. In Canada, a 1985 Solicitor General’s report found that there had been no change in the murder rate since the abolition of the death penalty, although surveys showed that 2/3 of the population wrongly thought that it had increased.

2) The possibility of error is irreversible.

If you wrongly convict an innocent person, you can’t give him his life back but at least you can release him from prison. If he’s dead you can’t do that. Advances in technology, such as the ability to do DNA testing, have vindicated a number of falsely-convicted prisoners over the years (the David Milgaard case comes to mind), and chances are, further advances will continue to do the same. To date, 65 people have been released from death sentences because it was later discovered they were innocent.

3) Money.

The economic argument for the death penalty doesn’t hold water; it costs more to execute a death row prisoner than to keep him in prison for life. The ratio between life imprisonment and the death penalty is $2 million to $5 million, respectively.

4) Revenge is not justice.

While it may satisfy our primal thirst for revenge to execute a prisoner, it doesn’t advance society in any way, and sends the message that life isn’t as precious as we say it is. Ultimately, it doesn’t come down to who they – meaning the prisoners, who have generally committed heinous acts such as cold-blooded murder – are. It comes down to who we want to be as a society, and what we stand for. Do we want to be a barbaric society, or a humane one?

I’d like to address the “mosquito argument” for the death penalty: namely, that swatting a mosquito may not stop other mosquitoes from biting you, but it will at least ensure that that particular mosquito won’t bite you again. People making this point argue that general deterrence may not work, but specific deterrence is a valid enough argument to support the death penalty, to ensure that the prisoner never escapes or gets paroled and goes out and kills someone else. To them I say that people aren’t mosquitoes, and that many innocent life forms can get caught up in a mosquito net.

Finally, I’d like to quote the Talmud (yes, me, the non-religious skeptic!) in saying that it is preferable to let 10 guilty people go free than to convict one innocent person.

Wow, I have a sneaking suspicion I’m about to really get it from the right . . . bring it on!

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ikram Saeed 11.30.-1 at 12:00 AM

Jaws: You think that it is unlikely longer sentences lead to greater recidivism in the US? Why?

I would think that a US prisons are less geared towards rehabilitation that Canadian prisons, but this is only based on the law and order rhetoric I hear from south of the border. I know little about this field.

(Note: The correlation between shorter prison sentences and recidivism is not an argument for shorter sentences, its an argument for better prisons)


2 segacs 11.30.-1 at 12:00 AM

Jaws –

Your underlying assumption there is that morality is based on nothing but consensus; that it is subjective and arbitrary.

The thing is, while morals may not be absolute, there are cases of identifiable situational right and wrong. Those arguing ethical relativity have to face the fact that people have basic rights – such as the right to life and the right to be free of harm – that govern morality.

If everyone decided tomorrow that murder was right, that still wouldn’t make it right. And the argument that it’s right because a society accepts it, and “who are we to judge?” is to condemn scores of innocent people because we’re not big enough to get involved.

Me is claiming that the United States has no right to say what’s right or wrong; if Arab nations want to oppress their women, torture their prisoners, and destroy Israel, then “who are we to judge?” Well, that just isn’t the case. We’re all human beings, and morality is anything BUT arbitrary.


3 trevalyan 01.12.03 at 12:32 AM

“Under most circumstances?” While that’s the sentence that proves you understand why people want the death penalty, I’d be interested to hear exactly why you support the death penalty under ANY circumstances.

Then extrapolate that decision into finding why people support the death penalty, even if money is spent on the automatic appeal (if indeed you statistics on that difference are correct: potassium chloride doesn’t exactly cost a great deal), even if there is a slight possibility of error, even if criminals wouldn’t take the death penalty as a major factor deterring them (though most would gladly take life in an American prison over being sent to hell): you know that the desire to ensure JUSTICE is done requires the maximum penalty has been paid. Don’t you?


4 Peter 01.12.03 at 4:48 AM

What happens if the murderer kill a fellow
inmate while serving his life sentence?


5 Peter 01.12.03 at 4:49 AM

that question was to segacs.


6 segacs 01.12.03 at 10:16 PM

Peter, our justice system doesn’t operate based on punishing people for crimes that they haven’t committed yet. You can’t kill someone just to prevent the chance that they may kill someone else in prison. And prison murders are evidence of problems with the prison system, not an argument to kill the inmates.


7 trevalyan 01.12.03 at 10:40 PM

Yeah, Lord knows there are plenty of arguments for the death penalty, but the chance of murdering prisoners isn’t the best one. It requires stretching the imagination to the breaking point to think we can’t restrain prisoners with SOME method if we were serious about abolishing the death penalty.


8 Peter 01.12.03 at 10:59 PM

in our society, we punish people all the time for acts
they haven’t committed.


9 Peter 01.12.03 at 11:02 PM

Or haven’t yet committed.


10 Me 01.12.03 at 11:31 PM

“our justice system doesn’t operate based on punishing people for crimes that they haven’t committed yet. You can’t kill someone just to prevent the chance that they may kill someone else”

Apparently, our foreign policy doesn’t follow the same logic.


11 trevalyan 01.13.03 at 12:11 AM

If your Criminal Court had any way of actually being ENFORCED, I’d give your glib little jibe some credit. Till then, you’re probably quite aware that Saddam has flaunted the United Nations and every concept of human rights since 1979. The “international community” as judge and jury of moral behaviour by nations? Please.


12 Me 01.13.03 at 1:25 AM

The United States as judge and jury of moral behaviour by nations? Please.


13 jaws 01.13.03 at 4:24 AM


speaking in general terms, who can define “moral behavior” especially in a global context?

(I’m not saying that the US can; I’m just throwing out the question in general)

With so many different cultures in the world, each with its own morals/values I think it would be hard to reach a concensus.


14 Peter 01.13.03 at 6:39 AM

Getting back to the original point,
instead of getting into the middle east,
which we seem to do often due to ME’s axe
to grind, the criminal justice system
in this country is seriously broken.

We send people away for 20 years if they
are found with a piece of crack cocaine, probably
because most of them are poor and/or black,
while we send people who imbibe the powdery version
are sent to drug rehab centers, probably because
they are mostly white.

I just saw a tv show the other night about
a very f*cked-up 19 year who old kid got sent
to prison for 8 1/2 years. He did bring
a gun and pipe bombs intending to kill.
but turned himself into a cop before he did anything.

The truth about this kid, though, was that he had been
taunted and bullied for years by assh*les and
the totally incompetent school and his totally
incompetent parents were unable to help him.
He suffered from extreme depression which, of course,
was untreated. In my opinion, he should have been sent
to a very good and secure mental hospital

What is going to happen to this kid is that
he is going to hang himself in his jail cell.
When that happens, I hope the judge and
prosecutor are tried for murder.

Anyway, I’m generally against the death penalty.
I just wanted to point out what many death penalty
advocates might argue. The truth is many
criminals are given long stiff sentences, life or
the death penalty because we fear what they
may do. Most politicians today are
in favor of no parole for many crimes because
they are afraid of another Willy Horton.

Here’s your chance for you to grind your
axe ME if you have gotten this far. What about
Moslems? We are registering them, finger printing
them and sticking them in jail for petty immigration violations,
because we are afraid of what they might do even though
they haven’t done anything yet.
Did we register and finger print every
Gulf war soldier after Oklahoma? Do the
long sentences we hand out for crack cocaine
users because the punishment meets the crime or
is it because they are poor and/or black?


15 segacs 01.13.03 at 2:42 PM

Peter – the mandatory registration of Muslims in the US is a fear-inspired exercise that, IMHO, is founded on racism and is disturbingly reminiscent of when the US (and Canada) put Japanese people into internment camps during WWII. I don’t support it in the least.

That point aside, your points about discrimination in the justice system may well be true, but it doesn’t logically follow that poor and/or minority people should get a pass. And it doesn’t really apply to the death penalty; contrary to popular belief, far more white people than black people have been executed.

You are correct in saying that if someone is truly mentally ill, they belong in a hospital, not a prison. But we’re seeing more and more insanity defenses in order to get a criminal out of having to serve prison time, and in most cases, it’s claptrap. The latest arguments are bordering on the absurd – that someone can be “too drunk” to be responsible for his/her actions, that someone “had to be insane” to have committed such a crime, etc. etc. It’s legal manoeuvering that’s designed to get people a free pass, and negates the whole theory of personal responsibility.


16 jaws 01.13.03 at 4:22 PM

Segacs–regarding my post in response to Me’s post; I was sort of just playing the role of “devil’s advocate”. I don’t want to jump into the whole philisophical issue of it.

As for the US crimnal justice system–it really does have many flaws. I’m not sure what it’s like for those of you up in Canada. I’m usually in favor of making people serve their time for their crimes. However, in some cases, I believe that people should be rehabilitated to enable them to rejoin society after their release. There are some correctional institutions in this country that do just that (but it’s up to the individual wardens to create/run such programs).

For more minor misdemeanors/felonies, I think that as part of the convicts time, they should be taught a trade, or given a chance to get an education (or earn a GED)–but this is something that they should have to earn (by showing self-rehabilitation and good behavior).

I also don’t like how the affluent also seem to get off while the poor are punished. I think that the rich should be punished just as the poor are (especially celebs–their cases are an insult to the system).

I must admit that I have a bias against sexual criminals and child abusers/predators…I don’t really have much sympathy for them, b/c of the nature of their crimes.

As for the INS, I think a lot of the arrests that have recently been done are less about law enforcement and more about improving the INS’ tarnished images in light of their dropping the ball with the 9/11 terrorists.

Those being locked up by the INS are being done so b/c they overstayed their visas–which means they should be deported. But the INS, with all its red-tape and follies, are very slow in their processing of these things.

I don’t see the INS’ actions so much as racism; but I’m getting a bit skeptical about it, b/c they only seem to be going after those with ME orgins. Why not look into illegal immigrants from south of the border (Latin America/Hispanics)?

All in all, the INS needs redone


17 segacs 01.13.03 at 4:29 PM

Jaws – the Canadian criminal justice system is built far more on the principles of rehabilitation, as compared to the US system which is more about punishment. I can’t say I entirely agree with the Canadian system, where a life sentence is 25 years (except in the rare case of someone being designated a dangerous offender) and someone like Karla Homolka could soon be back out on the streets.

Then again, thankfully most people in prisons are not heinous vicious murderers like Karla Homolka. The research all points to the fact that the shorter a prison term, the less likely a criminal is to reoffend once released back into society.

The main problem with the Canadian system is the vast over-representation of the Aboriginal population in the prison system. There are many socioeconomic reasons for this, but it’s all too common to have jails full of Aboriginal Canadians arrested on petty charges such as public drunkedness.

On the theory that the poor are targeted more than the rich, that’s partly based on truth but also a lot of perception. The main problem is that the rich tend to be able to afford better legal representation, and that the types of crime more common among the affluent (so-called “white collar crime”, which, of course, usually hurts many more people than a kid arrested for possession of crack cocaine) is harder to prove in a court of law . . . paper trails and complicated tax shelters are harder to decode than arresting someone in a street waving a handgun.

But that doesn’t mean police don’t try, and it doesn’t mean that the theory behind the system is necessarily broken.


18 jaws 01.13.03 at 10:10 PM

With serial killers or other very violent grusome crime offenders, I with we had someway to ship them off to a siberia type place for the rest of their lives….they deserve that kind of misery.

here in the states we have a big problem with repeat offenders…even after short prison stays…
When you mention research about short stays and a lower return to prison, is that in the canada? (b/c it doesn’t seem to be that way down here).

And when I was referring to how the rich get off “lighter” w/ sentences…I wasn’t thinking about “white-collar” crime (which is a whole different thing). I was comparing things like drug arrests and such.


19 segacs 01.13.03 at 10:26 PM

Jaws – yes, the stats were Canadian, based on a study conducted by the Canadian government. I don’t remember the details offhand, but I wrote a paper on the subject a couple of years ago so I could dig them up if you like.

Basically the study compared prisoners who were convicted for the same/similar offenses and had the same/similar criminal histories, and looked at recidivism rates based on different lengths of prison stay. The conclusion was that people become even more hardened criminals in prison, and that they are often socialized into the total institution which makes it extremely difficult to reintegrate into society once they are paroled.

Like I said, I’d rather not get into too many details without having the data in front of me. I’ll get back to you.


20 jaws 01.14.03 at 2:56 AM

Now that you mention that the stats were from canada, it makes more sense. I couldn’t imagine those stats being true here in the states.


21 jaws 01.15.03 at 10:04 PM

I think that the US prison system is in need of overhaul. I am for having people do their time, but I think that we either must make jail really a punishment (to teach a lesson of consequence) and for some prisoners, who show a turn around, they should be rehabilitatted, tought a trade, etc.


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