Does The Death Penalty Have A Practical Purpose?

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 23 2011 @ 6:24pm

A reader writes:

This quote from Wilkinson drives me nuts:

We punish to deter. We punish to acknowledge the harm brought to the victim, to their loved ones, to their community. We punish to shame and to publicly dishonor the criminal. But the way we do it should embody ideals of humanity, magnanimity, and improvement. Punishment thus should be as light as is consistent with the requirements of security and harmonious society. We must learn, against the grain of our vengeful retributive instincts, to find satisfaction in justice that leaves the thief with his hands, the murderer with his life.

I’m opposed to capital punishment on a purely practical grounds, so Wilkinson is making an argument that effectively leaves us on the same side. However, he argues from a flawed premise – the same premise that fuels death penalty supports. I detest the notion that the criminal justice system exists to punish people. 

Law enforcement, courts, probation and parole agents and community/juvenile intervention programs should exist to make us safer, period.  Either through preventing crime, or by removing criminals from society, the goal is simply to protect our life, liberty and property.  I have no interest in society exacting revenge for someone’s misdeeds, or making sure they suffer some sort of equivalent consequences.

As a pure choice, I don’t care if a murderer is incarcerated for life or put to death; I want him removed from society.  How we can do that in the most permanent, cost-effective way is what matters. I don’t give a damn if the offender ever feels remorse or is rehabilitated, I just don’t want them to be able to do it again.  The death penalty only brings opportunities for irreversible mistakes, as well as questions of morality, ethics and cost into a realm where they are neither helpful or needed. 

In short, I oppose the death penalty because it does not provide any additional safe guard against violent crime, yet presents a pile of moral and financial problems to criminal justice.

Another poses a scenario that complicates the reader's bottom line:

OK, so some 6'5'' dude that looks like a pro wrestler rapes and kills 10 men with his bare hands.  Because capital punishment is now abolished, he is sentenced to life in prison and put in a cell with YOU, who is there for manslaughter because you ran over somebody while drunk with zero intentions of hurting anybody, or maybe you just sold a kilo of cocaine to the wrong guy.  Is that fair or "just" to you to be alone in a 10'x12'cage with this vicious, violent madman?  Or even in the same chow line?

Since he has already been punished as much as he possibly can by law (life without parole), what incentive does he have NOT to rape and kill you right there in prison?  If he does attack you, what penalty will they threaten him with?  Not execution, since that is off the table, right?  I guess they could give him "double-life," but that doesn't help his cellmate's shattered skull or his next victim, now does it?

So what exactly would restrain the behavior of "lifers" who would have nothing to lose if execution isn't on the table?