Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Put To Death By The State

I've spent a lot of time over the last weekend thinking about death. I wrote a research essay for my American politics module on "Whether the US death penalty is effective in reducing crime?"

We were given a list of potential topics to research, but this one definitely stood out. It's a topic i find fascinating, one which inevitably inspires a strong emotive response.

I'll preface the rest of this argument with two statements. Firstly, i am against the death penalty. I oppose it on moral and ethical grounds; i can't understand how you justify taking a life on the grounds that they took a life first. How can you take a moral stance on how wrong it is to kill someone, if your response is to kill that person. To quote a man much wiser than me, "An eye for an eye, leaves the whole world blind."

An often suggested counter-point is that i'd feel differently if it was a family member or friend who died in these circumstances. I'm sure initially i would; a violent, angry and vengeful reaction to something like that is the single most natural reaction imaginable. But with time and a little bit of perspective though, i'd hope i would find some ability if not to forget, at least to no longer want to take their life in return. It is, like many of the big debates of this kind, hard to know how you would react in a situation like that unless you unfortunately were in it. There are numerous examples of people who have found a way to move past the anger and came to the conclusion that more killing wasn't the way to deal with the horror of the situation. A prime example of this is Bud Welch. His daughter Julie was killed in the Oklahoma bombing in 1996 and i'll let his words explain it better than i could, http://theforgivenessproject.com/stories/bud-welch-usa/ . If that man can find it in him to forgive a man who took his only daughter away, surely others can.

The second statement is that the statistics and many of the details i'm going to talk about are about the death penalty in the US as there are very up to date statistics for the pros and cons of the argument (i drew many of the statistics from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf), but it's an issue that has never, most likely will never, go away completely in the UK.

Now there are two positions from which people argue for the death penalty from. Firstly deterrence; the idea that the existence of the death penalty is an effective deterrent, putting off potential criminals from committing crimes. It's a popular theory that if a country has the death penalty it is in some way an effective method for countering crime. This is an argument that i could at least respect, even if it didn't change my opinion on the death penalty as a whole.

However there is no conclusive evidence to support the idea that there are any tangible links between the imposition of the death penalty and the murder rate. In the United States the states which actively practice the death penalty are predominantly in the south, and these have the highest murder rate in regional terms. The average murder rate in the US is 5.0 per 100,000 people, but in the Southern states it's 6, compared to the North Eastern states where the death penalty has almost unanimously been abolished is 3.8. Now i'm not claiming that the death penalty leads to an increase in murders, the telling differences between the states in the south and the north east is are as much social, economic and racial issues. However it is a pretty damning argument against the idea that is advocated commonly in the south, that the death penalty actually causes a decline in murder rates.

Also, in nations across Europe and in Australia, the abolition of the death penalty didn't lead to the increase in murders that many of it's supporters claimed was likely.

So if not deterrence, then what would the justification be? The second position is that of retribution, of the concept that the only suitable punishment for a murderer is execution. Now i disagree with this on principle, i can understand the argument, that these people have voided there right to life and that imprisonment is too good for these individuals. It's an example of how subjective the argument is, that i can understand it, but i can't agree with it. I just can't reconcile myself to the idea that the state's response to murder should be more killing If taking another person's life is so morally abhorrent, i can't support the state taking other people's lives, regardless of the disgust i feel for the act they committed. I believe that life imprisonment, without parole, for crimes that would be considered worthy of the death penalty is a much fairer, more fitting and more moral punishment than any form of capital punishment.

Overall my stance on criminal justice is that with the exception of people who commit truly atrocious acts, there should at least be some consideration given to the possibility of rehabilitating criminals. I prefer to see the role of the state in response to criminal action as one of trying to make the best of a terrible situation, rather than simply punishing those responsible. Find ways to make these criminals useful to society again, whether via programs to re-introduce them into society or through some form of manual work in aid of society while in prison. There aren't perfect solutions to the imperfect reality that crime will always exist in society. Ideas, as ill formed as mine are, like the ones above are in my view ways to draw positives from the situation rather than perpetuating cycles of violence, hate and resentment.

If you take away deterrence and retribution as arguments, then the other commonly argued angle is cost. The idea that the death penalty saves the tax payer money, that why should tax payers money be 'wasted' on people who've committed horrific crimes.

Now this is where the research essay really surprised me, where i found something out that went against so much of what i'd believed in relation to the death penalty. The cost argument has been one which i'd never looked into, yet always considered that despite there possibly being truth to the idea, it didn't excuse state organised executions.

Here's a few facts for you that really shocked me:

  • In California the death penalty system as a whole costs taxpayers $114m per year beyond what they would spend on life imprisonment for those criminals. The taxpayers have paid more than $250m for each of the state's executions.
  • In Kansas, capital cases were found to be 70% more expensive than non-capital cases.
  • A particularly comprehensive study of the death penalty in North Carolina found that it costs $2.16m per execution over the cost of sentencing murderers to life imprisonment.
  • In Texas, it costs an average of $2.3m for a death penalty case. That's three times more than what it would cost them to imprison someone in an individual cell of a high security prison for 40 years. Incidentally Texas has the highest number of executions since 1976, totalling 466 executions. Though it's a foolish over-simplification, 466 x $2.3m comes in at $1071.8m. So much for the death penalty being the cheaper alternative.
These costs are from a whole host of sources; the cost of keeping someone on death row, the expenses of the extensive trial system, the expense of the actual execution and many more sources of expenditure.

Not only is there little evidence for the death penalty being a deterrent and it clearly isn't the cheap option, but there is one element i haven't touched upon yet. That of innocence and the irrevocable nature of capital punishment. Just this month Illinois abolished the death penalty in the wake of a 10 year moratorium on executions. That moratorium was instituted by former Governor George Ryan, who was personally shocked by the frequency of exonerations for people on Death Row. The controversies of exonerations and unjust executions are numerous and easy to find, but i'm going to look at one particular example. The final execution during George W. Bush's tenure as governor of Texas was Claude Jones, for the murder of Alan Hilzendager. Jones' conviction and subsequent execution was based on a single piece of DNA evidence, a 2.5cm strand of hair found at the scene. Last year a DNA test ordered by the court found that actually the hair belonged to the victim rather than Jones. Sadly 10 years too late, the courts realised that they had executed a man based on a piece of evidence that was never satisfactorily tested (for the full story read this article from the Time Magazine website - http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2031034,00.html).

Factor in the fact that even the lethal injection isn't foolproof - http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=130959&page=1 - and i'm really struggling to find a pro-death penalty angle here.

If it isn't a deterrent, it isn't cost effective, in my opinion it isn't moral and there's too little guarantee they're actually executing the guilty person, what exactly am i as an individual meant to use as a justification for continued support of the death penalty.

I acknowledge that the moral judgement is a highly subjective one and i'm not conceited enough to believe my assessment is inherently right or pro-death penalty people are wrong, it's simply my view, but it's one that i believe is backed up by a large degree of the evidence.

I think it's unlikely i will become an advocate for the death penalty any time soon.

1 comment:

  1. The majority of people executed or on death row are a product of economic instability. From broken homes due to economic issues. Lack of opportunity. The subconscious acceptance that if you're from a poor black American suburb, you're unlikely to achieve anything. The death penalty is the State governments way of absolving all responsibility for economic problems caused by a religious like worship of free market economic Darwinism, and just killing people who struggle to cope with that system.