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

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Is LWOP Better Than the Death Penalty?

An apparent case (not really knowing the details) of prosecutorial misconduct is discussed by Dahlia Lithwick. The purpose of defense attorneys and judicial oversight/review is to balance off such flaws in the system. Elected prosecutors dealing with "tough on crime" sentiments and/or those who want advancement which rarely is inhibited by going in that direction in close cases are but some reasons why we can't just rely on self-correction. It helps when the judge has a mixed background.

This led on the fray (which might be ending soon, so more links on this blog to it will be dead) to a discussion of the death penalty and how life without parole is not better.  A popular entry on this blog is my refutation of this sentiment. Without linking to it, I will post my recent sentiments on the subject, including some of the sentiments on the other side. The original thread is here and I start by responding to someone who also was against the argument made by the lede post. 
LWOP is more cruel then the death penalty? That may be so, for some people. Many others would choose life, even if they are in jail. At least LWOP is reversible though.
Right. Most, even if given the choice, are not "volunteers" who quicken their sentence. For them, it seems um paternalism to determine that its too cruel for them to keep living. The cruelty of LWOP also is partially a matter of the prisons we have. Execution is not the only solution there. And, if some can handle it, the trouble others have is tempered by the fact that they are heinous murderers. They too have rights, but some unpleasantness is part of punishment.

Finally, it seems to prove too much. What about others who have very long sentences, such as rapists or multiple felony offenders who are in prison for decades? When does this become cruel and unreasonable as well so that we need to execute them for the humanity?

I don't wish to trivialize -- for some, LWOP would seem cruel as compared to execution. But, there is no easy answers here. The system we have makes execution problematic as well. And, the problem there is that there are no backsies. LWOP has problems, but selectively executing a few people while keeping others in cages for a long period of time doesn't seem to be a great solution. That is how it always has been -- always a small somewhat arbitrary subset has been executed. This highlights the importance of life in our society (and distrust of state power), so that the state doesn't involuntarily kill people except in very narrow circumstances. Even heinous criminals. It is very unclear if the pretty arbitrary system that results is constitutional or just.

Perfect justice might allow execution, but we aren't there.

[The original person responds, some excerpts in italics.]
You are presuming things that i do not feel or think. You are close, but not enough.
To forestall confusion, what you feel or think (which is subjective) is not my immediate concern; my concern is to address a certain argument. 
My entire argument was from the perspective of society. The convict isn't my interest here.
I appreciate the clarification because when you said "cruel and unreasonable sentence imposed on criminals" and used words like "cruel" that are found in provisions that are partially concerned with the convict, I thought they had something to do with things. But, again, my game is bigger than your specific feelings or sentiments. But, I appreciate you taking the time to spell them out below.

[From past experience with this writer, though usually while I used a different name, his ability to calmly set forth his positions without personal bias and assumptions (what I "presume" / mistaking what he "feels")  was somewhat lacking.  It's hard to debate opposing views with such barriers. His reply was therefore appreciated for its basic straightforward nature.]
1. Timidity - hence my comment, by sentencing someone to jail for the entirety of their life society is condemning that convict to death, only they are doing it slowly because they are too timid to act on their ethical/moral convictions (no pun intended).
Everyone dies. The sentence doesn't do it. The sentence affects the means. The ethical/moral convictions put forth here is that executing them as compared to some other means (including having them die in prison) is wrong. Where's the timidity?
This convict is not being rehabilitated, society has given up on them - otherwise there would be no caveat "without parole". So since rehabilitation isn't the goal - then incarceration is simply to remove that person from society permanently. This is a death sentence, symbolic but no less final for the person.
Society gives up on them when they execute. And, since rehabilitation can take a long time, including after a decade or more in prison, this is particularly bad here. Finally, LWOP in actuality might not be LWOP. If the person becomes feeble, e.g., their ability to be placed outside of the prison or in some sort of hospital or halfway location changes. Some of the helpless cases in the old days now can be handled with psychiatric drugs and other methods. etc. If they were executed a few years before this method was found, they would be out of luck.

The inability to be able to rehabilitate basically is the inability to put them back into society. This doesn't mean, and often this is seen, that they have no ability to have some value or ability to exist inside the prison. We would be left with a few exceptions where people kill in prison though even there a few probably are mentally unbalanced enough that killing them would be questionable.

Like a person in other institutions, including old age homes, this is not totally "final." They are still alive. This is why so few rather die than be there. Like old age homes, the conditions often are horrible, but the ideal solution to me is not just to kill them.
2. Uncertainty - his partners with timidity, but expands on it. By imposing life without parole society is proclaiming that this person is being locked up even though they aren't entirely sure he or she is guilty.
Curiously, you use this to support the death penalty as if society is better off if the person is executed, though there is a chance (reaffirmed by experience) that some subset shouldn't be there since they are either factually or legally innocent. I'm with others in not finding this proper.
3. Cruel - while I think you have a point in that paternalism certainly enters the equation, consider what a willingness to confine another person against his/her will for the entirety of their lives is.
I believe that future societies will find our "solution" of the criminal class of putting people in little cages for years on end to be as heinous as some of the things we now deem heinous about past societies. But, this proves too much. It would call into question as I said any type of long sentence. If the issue is too small cells, again, that can be fixed in ways other than killing people. This has been shown in prisons in certain European countries.

Finally, though I'm not gung ho about it, our system does currently seem to assume that punishment includes a retribution aspect, so the fact prisoners suffer some would be acceptable up to a point. Especially since rapists and thieves suffer long time prison sentences in small cages, why society should help heinous murderers out by shortening their time is unclear.
My argument has nothing to do with false convictions, overly aggressive prosecutes, overly zealous defense attorneys, or the imperfections of our criminal justice system. It is an examination of what life without parole reflects on the society that developed it.
The other stuff, however, does complicate handing out death sentences and even taking your interesting moral position on its own, it doesn't seem to work.