I was knocked into a thoughtful mode today by an unusually fair and well-done NPR program on the death penalty. The reason for the program was the Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling that the death penalty could only be imposed by juries, not by judges. This, in my view, was a small step, but nonetheless, any step in the right direction is a good one.
Most Americans favor the death penalty. At least, they say they do. If asked whether they are in favor, or opposed, to capital punishment, something like 3/4 of Americans come out in favor. But if the question's wording is changed, so that the alternative of life-imprisonment without parole is mentioned, the numbers are more like half and half. This seems a fair indication that most Americans are not actually all that strong in their opinions about the issue.
Now I oppose the death penalty. The reasons are primarily practical, with a bit of morality thrown in to boot. First of all, there's the practical. It costs an enormous amount of money to execute inmates. The appeals process takes years. I really think that in a case where an execution will cost upward of a million dollars, one should consider the alternatives. Put another way, it's perverse to spend so much money on those convicted of a crime considered heinous enough to merit the death penalty.
From the point of view of the judicial system though, the death penalty is an anachronism. Nearly all of Europe has abolished it. All told, something like 120 nations have done the same. Do we really want to be placing ourselves in with nations like North Korea, Iraq or Myanmar? This is an outdated method of punishment. If so many others found alternatives, why can't we?
Dealing with the legal system again, there is the issue of fairness. Remember the infamous words: "a reasonable doubt?" Or how about "innocent until proven guilty?" Now it is well known that these laws allow people who are guilty to go unpunished. The point is, the people who founded this country and its legal system felt that it was better to allow criminals to go free, than to unjustly punish the innocent.
One thing about the death penalty is that it is final. Unlike other punishments, which if wrongly meted out, can be rescinded, the death penalty can't. Just this last year, 2 state governors suspended executions in their states because of revelations that the system had failed. Out of 25 people whose cases were reviewed in Illinois, 12 were executed, but 13 were found to have been convicted in questionable circumstances. I believe that carrying out a punishment which is final under such circumstances puts the credibility of the justice system as fair and impartial under serious doubt. If this many mistakes are made, the odds of executing innocent men and women, many such men and women, are high.
My final argument against the death penalty is that it is inconsistent with the goals of the criminal-justice system. One goal is to rehabilitate people. Admittedly, most people on death row have been presumed beyond rehabilitation. Still, you can't rehabilitate the dead. Another goal is punishment. As punishment, it is hard to see why execution is any harder than life imprisonment. Execution is a matter of a few seconds, but a life sentence lasts significantly longer. Finally, there's the issue of keeping people out of trouble. True, dead men don't bite. But neither do the incarcerated, at least not very often. And considering the costs of the execution vs. the imprisonment, execution just doesn't seem the most effective means of achieving that end.