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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!