Justice and the Death Penalty
January 7th, 2008 by Sonja

It’s probable that I should not have read this article.  I should have just passed it by when it caught my eye as I was skimming the article list before coffee this morning.  But I read it.  I’m slightly out of sorts anyway.  We’ve had too much company, this last batch staying longer than we anticipated.  LightGirl has had her hair straightened and no longer looks like herself.  I have a quilt burning through my fingers.  Yes, I’m out of sorts.  I should not have read this article before coffee … which is my most out-of-sorts part of the day.

The title alone made me grumpy:  High court to weigh in on lethal injection.  But as an informed citizen, I thought I should read the article.  So I did.  There is a lot in there about how we go about killing our fellow citizens.   And whether or not it is humane.  Which methods are more humane than the other.  Are they more or less humane than the methods we use for euthanizing animals?

My grumpy, uncaffeinated mind retorted, “Humane is no death penalty … it’s kinda like birth control.  You can only truly be humane when you abstain.”

As I began to drink my coffee and process this, I realize that this, of course, won’t fly in this country.  I’m being grumpily naive … or naively grumpy.  Or something.

I don’t believe in the death penalty, as you might guess from this.  Here’s why.  It serves no purpose other than retribution.  We call it justice … but there’s no justice in death.  We call it punishment … but punishment implies correction.  Correction means that a person can correct their behavior and go on to live a productive life.  But not when they’re dead, or waiting to be dead.

If I could have my wish, we’d have a deep conversation about justice and the criminal justice system in our country.  Our criminal justice system is broken.  Fractured beyond repair.  We have rules piled on laws stacked up on code until we are all chasing our tails.  More rules, harsher incarceration terms and limits aren’t solving the problems.  Have we even defined what the problems are?  Do we really know what problem we’re trying to solve?

In the cases before the Supreme Court today one is a man who ran into another car then killed the couple who’s car he ran into.  Who does that?  Who runs into a car, then kills the occupants?  Answer:  Someone who is impaired because of drugs, alcohol or mental incapacity of some sort.  No one in their right mind runs into a car then kills the occupants.  The death penalty in that case is not a deterrent.  It’s not a punishment.  It’s either retribution.  Or, we could just say we’re tired of paying for the criminal upkeep and it’s more efficient.  Let’s just call it what it is.  Be honest all you friends of the death penalty.  The bottom line is that it’s efficient.  We don’t have to think very hard about what we’re doing.  Or how we’re doing it.  It looks good.  It sounds good.  The criminals are locked up.  Or dead.

The thing is, our prisons are full and overflowing.  Our courts are full and overflowing.  Crime ebbs and flows; we think it responds to this or that change in the laws.  But I’m not so sure.  I participated in a long, convoluted conversation about the value of human life just before Christmas.  As a result of that I did some research into how the gun carry laws affected the murder rate in the various states.  The answer I found, it doesn’t.  Both are all over the map.  So, clearly, too many other factors are at work to effect crime rates than criminal law.

One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.  Can an entire nation be declared insane?  We keep doing the same thing over and over and over and over again, expecting a different result … yet we keep getting the same result.  And we’re surprised again and again and again.

Here are the questions I’d love to ask.  What purpose does our criminal justice system serve?  What problems are we trying to solve?  How does the death penalty fit into that purpose?  It is only after we (as a people) answer those questions that we can begin to answer the question of how to pursue a humane death penalty.

3 Responses  
  • Jarred writes:
    January 7th, 200810:05 amat

    As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I am in favor of the death penalty, but only in very limited cases. Those cases would be for repeat violent offenders, such as serial killers. And yes, I’ll readily admit that it’s for the sake of efficiency.

    I agree that the criminal justice system is flawed. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to imagine a less flawed system, though I sincerely wish I could.

    Part of the problem that I see is that I’m not convinced that “punishment” is an effective motivator for reform when it comes to adults. And then there’s the problem that for reform to take place, the person being reformed ultimately has to want it to happen. Some criminals want it to happen, and others don’t. The problem then is twofold:

    1. How do you determine who is ultimately open to reform and who isn’t?
    2. What do you do about the people in the latter group?

    I don’t have any answers, sadly. But I’m hoping I at least get partial credit for asking the questions. 😉

  • Pistol Pete writes:
    January 7th, 200810:45 amat

    Excellent points. The only humane way to approach capital punishment is to abolish it altogether.

  • Lori writes:
    January 7th, 200811:11 pmat

    This is a tough one for me. A few years ago I would have said absolutely I believe in the death penalty, but like everything else I believed in firmly, God seems to be shaking up, but I can say with all honesty, I don’t know! here is the thing that is the rub for me when I think about this subject, child rapist/murderers, repeat drunk drivers who end up taking innocent lives, repeat offenders who continue to destroy lives. I, like Jarred have no answers. I do know this, your post has made me continue think about what I believe and why.

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