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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Death Worse Than Life In Prison? (And, So?)

And Also: I briefly looked at the opinion that held that South Africa must not discriminate in the area of marriage, thus a woman can marry a woman, a man can marry a man. First off, their constitution -- enacted in the 1990s -- enumerates various classes that are secured against wrongful discrimination, including sexual orientation. So, the ruling was easier than one that might be made by our own Supreme Court. Second, the opinion cited Brown v. Bd. of Ed. for comparison purposes. How dare they, right?

An argument was made that life in prison was crueler than execution because the former consists of spending life in a hellhole. Since it is equitable to execute those sentenced for intentional murder, this suggests that capital punishment is more humane than such an alternative. [See a more complete debate here with my final post probably the best expression of my views with the other participants also worthwhile.]

This has surface appeal, but is wrongheaded on many counts. One that recently came to mind is rather ironical and considers a very long term not much better than life in prison. Consider twenty years (a quite possible sentence for drug crimes, third time offenders, certain violent felonies, being an American Taliban, etc.) in a hellhole. Pretty tough, correct? Interestingly, the above argument presupposes that it is acceptable to apply such sentences, but a proper sentence for a murderer would be execution after a few years while mandatory appeals are dealt with and so forth. I assume it would be a bit lame to say that the murderer needs to spend a long time in the hellhole first, correct? That would defeat the purpose of the more "humane" execution. Thus, killing people apparently has a sort of perk to it, other than the usual ones in mind when one murders someone.

This is a bit absurd, unless it is underlined that society overall has never considered long term imprisonment even in horrible prisons to be worse than death. The convicted murderers tend to agree -- very few cut short long drawn out appeals. Thus, a true "humane" approach would require individualized sentencing to determine if the person really wants to be executed instead of placed in prison, where there is always some slim hope they might get out someday as well as actually getting some slim pleasure in surviving (and perhaps even undergoing some sort of transformation that does not just benefit society, but is personally beneficial). But, many who promote the "death is better than life in prison" approach would accept criminal policy by broader brush. And, overall, few would pick execution.

The fact is that -- and one should not diminish the problems with the approach in many instances -- our society accepts locking people up in cages for long periods of times in conditions that would warrant animal cruelty charges. We only execute a small sliver of even intentional murderers, few eligible to die, fewer still chosen by prosecutors to be liable, fewer sentenced by juries, and fewer still eventually executed without governor (or some other sort of, including death in prison during a long appeals process) intervention.

Why? Because like physical punishments in response to physical related crimes (assaults, etc.), premeditated execution in response to even murder generally seems uncivilized and yes immoral to many people. Such is why the Bible and rabbinical policy made it so hard to kill people, even with all those death eligible crimes. And, why we have so many roadblocks. This suggests -- though surely some rather die than be in prison for years to come (just as some violent sorts rather be beaten up than being confined) -- killing is uniquely troublesome. Furthermore, the state killing, at least in this sort of way, is even more so.*

Anyway, the humane counterargument is too cute in other ways as well. The problem with the death penalty is akin to that of the administration in power -- wide and multifaceted. Let's say life in prison in uniquely horrible. Fine: this would deter people more than execution would, correct? And, deterrence is offered as a reason in support of the death penalty. Ditto the retribution angle: simply put, lethal injection is not quite comparable to many of the horrible murders that led the executed to the gurney. A life for a life is actually a poor calculus, since things are not quite that simple (the same applies to killing the guy in California -- he is not the man he was twenty or so years ago when he killed).

But, the crafty execution friendly argument is trying to defeat the claimed liberal opposition to the death penalty. They apparently are sometimes willing to do so on the liberals' assumed terms, even if it violates the usual arguments made by the other side. Suffice to say, in reality, society has determined that prison is not worse than death. The claim only works in a narrow range of cases. And, it does not respond to the error concerns: liberals are concerned about that too, and execution is a bit too final. Furthermore, the liberal also thinks the state itself should not execute. The state already puts people behind bars ... for long periods of time. It is unclear why it is so much worse to put some longer, especially since experience has dictated that some do benefit from the experience [Shawshank Redemption, anyone?].

I personally am not too concerned with lessening the suffering of murderers too much. Roughly put, I am more concerned with my own soul, or rather the soul of the government for which I am partly responsible. Abolition to killing is a major part of it ... I am not going to authorize the state to kill even if a murderer wants to quicken their demise while the person who beat, raped, and repeatedly stole rots in prison down the way. And, no, I do not want to kill them either.

Still, one can go past that. Rough utilitarianism -- something I am sympathetic to though I am inclined to soften it around the edges. Execution is more expensive, arguably lets the murderer off easier (so goes the lede argument) / in the process, deters less (?), it prevents the state from trying to rehabilitate or get some sort of restitution other than a pound of flesh (how Shakespearean), and authorizes killing while basically saying that there is no hope making prisons better than death.

So, no dice.


* The state is limited in what it can do, especially as compared to your worse form of criminals. Thus, the “eye for an eye” approach is not our policy ... we modify it quite a lot, and if the state cannot break my arm (even with painkillers) if I break yours, why should they do the much worse act of killing me for murder?

The person who inspired this post, however, made a specious comparison. The state can do many things we cannot as long as they are authorized to do so. Thus, they can "steal" by taxation. But, stealing is not taxation -- if I demand payment for breach of contract, eventually I might be able to obtain a court order to under the force of law obtain money. "Stealing," however implies wrongful seizure of money without getting anything in return except for the trauma and uneasiness of being victimized. I was both taxed and had something stole from me over my lifetime. I can tell you, not the same thing. And, a fine is even less equivalent to theft than execution is to most murders.

Thus, yes, broadly speaking, the state (and each one of us) can do certain acts that in other situations are crimes, but they rarely are truly equivalent especially when particularly odious things are at stake.