September 25, 2011

"Abolishing capital punishment in a kind of despair over its fallibility would... would tell the public that our laws and courts and juries are fundamentally incapable of delivering what most Americans consider genuine justice.."

Ross Douthat write:
It could encourage a more cynical and utilitarian view of why police forces and prisons exist, and what moral standards we should hold them to. And while it would put an end to wrongful executions, it might well lead to more overall injustice.
I've never understood why people who don't trust convictions agonize over the death penalty but blandly accept life imprisonment.

86 comments:

campy said...

One step at a time, Professor.

The fight against life sentences begins the day death sentences are abolished.

John Burgess said...

Perhaps because a life sentence is potentially reversible, while a death penalty isn't, once it's carried out?

Bob_R said...

Spot on! I have reservations about capital punishment but fallibility is not one of them. If you are on death row you have more people looking out for you than if you are behind bars for the rest of your life. There must be many times the number of people falsely imprisoned as falsely executed.

Bob_R said...

John - How do you "reverse" time spent behind bars?

HA HA HA said...

1. When somebody is in prison, you can let him out again if new evidence comes up. Reanimating a corpose poses greater technical challenges.

2. What campy said: Just wait, they'll be against that as well.

Also, Douthat is making a crazy point here. If there is a flaw in our justice system, we should admit it and fix it. If we are more afraid about admitting flaws than we are of letting them go uncorrected, then the public will figure out fairly rapidly that we are incapable of delivering justice.

Everybody assumes that people with power have blind, absolute confidence in their own rectitude and an unwillingness to admit when they're wrong. Unlike Douthat, I see that as a bug, not a feature.

In principle, I like the death penalty. But it's awful hard to change your mind about it, and no justice system can possibly be perfect.

traditionalguy said...

Douthat has a good point. If we cannot respect the Justice system, complete with its much hated Defense Lawyers, then the power to ruin men's lives and kill men will be exercised by far worse "committees" of politically active mobs.


Political power still belongs to whomever has the guns.

The best solution is to keep Juries and defense lawyers in Courts as the protection for all men.

When that Justice/Revenge power is taken away as a sop to the politically active, then it will still be exercised by much worse men.

Chris said...

I find the "if people knew the truth..." parade of horribles argument from the right (usually used to justify religion) morally equivalent to and as tiresome as the the "if people were free to do what they want..." parade of horribles argument from the left when it comes to economic matters. While Douthat probably does have a point, I don't think it is in line with the better principles upon which America was founded for the government to set policy to make sure its citizens imagine that its institutions are transcendently powerful. We need people to appreciate utility as it is, not to manipulate them.

Chris said...

That being said, I'm not necessarily in favor of abolishing capital punishment, I just think Douthat's argument against it is poor.

traditionalguy said...

The Commissar of the People's Committee has one favorite line:

"Take him outside and shoot him."

That power still has to be carefully and slowly exercised by Juries in a system of laws or we create the backlash of mobs who are shortly ruled over by strange and murderous police state men with no restraints on them at all.

Hagar said...

With a life sentence, the police and prosecution must consider that there is a non-trivial chance any misconduct on their part will come back to haunt them.

If the prisoner is executed, they are safe forever.

Curious George said...

"Hagar said...
With a life sentence, the police and prosecution must consider that there is a non-trivial chance any misconduct on their part will come back to haunt them.

If the prisoner is executed, they are safe forever."

Huh?

iowan2 said...

How about 'To Kill a Mockingbird' rule?

That and holding prosecuters to the same sentences as those they falsely prosecute? The Duke lacrosse players come to mind

Ann Althouse said...

"When somebody is in prison, you can let him out again if new evidence comes up. Reanimating a corpose poses greater technical challenges."

I realize that, of course, but the fact is much more attention is paid to the death penalty cases, and the person with a life sentence just rots away in prison. His life is lost slowly. True, he could be released at any point, having lost whatever years he's spent in prison, but it's not likely. Life is being lost constantly in prison, and no one wants to look closely at that.

If you really think there are a lot of innocent people wasting away in prison, you should be highly concerned about that.

Frankly, I think the core opposition to the death penalty is based on moral opposition to the state killing a defenseless human being, strapping him down and killing him. I personally find that morally wrong.

But a lot of people don't. The insinuation that innocent people are being punished is being used to move those people, being used as a means to an end.

Ironically, it should be that we care about truth, and this innocence argument is not about truth. It is propaganda. I would vote to abolish the death penalty, but I do not accept the use of dishonest manipulation to win support for abolition.

Gabriel Hanna said...

No system of justice is infallible. No human institution is infallible. The argument from fallibility against the death penalty is an argument against prison, an argument against punishment, and an argument against courts. Consequently it is special pleading to only apply it to the death penalty.

A nonzero chance of killing the innocent by mistake is a cost of capital punishment, open and acknowledged. What is not seen are the future innocents killed by a guilty person who is not executed. This cost is never acknowledged by those who oppose capital punishment.

What is not seen is that most crimes are committed by recidivists. No executed murder has ever murdered again.

Furthermore, as already noted, those against the death penalty are also against supermax prisons and life without parole.

And as already noted, time spent in prison is no more reversible than execution.

Pogo said...

"most Americans ...want to believe that our justice system is just, and not merely a mechanism for quarantining the dangerous in order to keep the law-abiding safe"

False dichotomy.

It is "just" because it quarantines the dangerous in order to keep the law-abiding safe.

That fact is untenable for lefties like Douthat, because it undermines all of their utopian fantasies, especially the economic ones, like socialism.

If humans require jail for public safety reasons rather than reform, then conservatives are right.

That's what they are afraid of.

glenn said...

"I've never understood why people who don't trust convictions agonize over the death penalty but blandly accept life imprisonment.
"

Simple. If someone is serving life and evidence (Like DNA) surfaces to exonerate them you can let them out and compensate them. If you execute them all you can do is try to hide what happened.

fleetusa said...

For decades I supported the death penalty but I've come to prefer "hard time" life sentences in which the lifer has few of the comforts of prison life (i.e. no cable, no gym, no porn, average food, minimal outdoor time).

If the lifer is released due to new evidence there should be some way to put them on social security as a compensation for lost time.

Bob Ellison said...

The fact that the Norway recent Norway terrorist's maximum penalty will be 21 years seems to support campy's "just you wait" contention.

Mark Twain write eloquently about the bleeding-heart emotionalism that lies behind such policies in "Lionizing Murderers".

MikeR said...

If we're talking about the Troy Davis case, I've seen only one post in the last two weeks where the writer said he had gone through and examined all the evidence. In all the others, someone was posting about what they had seen others saying, without actually reading the transcripts, running down the recantations, etc.

The first poster came to a clear conclusion: Davis was guilty, and everyone who looked at the evidence knew it, including all the review boards. A real no-brainer.

All the other posters - I must have seen more than a dozen - came to a different conclusion: If that's what everyone is saying, how can you execute him? He deserves another trial or a least a stay of execution till these questions are cleared up.

It's almost as if there's a new standard for capital cases. The defendant must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on the part of people who haven't actually studied the case.

That's a pretty high bar.

Paul said...

I honestly feel the death penalty should be for cases where it is BEYOND A SHADOW OF A DOUBT they did it (not 'reasonable doubt'.)

If not, life in prison and a chance to show you are innocent.

dmoelling said...

Here in connecticut the last trial of the brutal rape and murder of Dr. Pettits wife and daughters (and attempted murder of him as well) is starting. Our new democratic governor and the legislature are all against the death penalty, but they delayed repeal because they could not look this man in the eyes. if he had died too in the burning house, the murderers would not have faced death. There is an old justice that cannot be wished away.

MikeinAppalachia said...

"...moral opposition to the state killing a defenseless human being, strapping him down and killing him. I personally find that morally wrong."

The "defenseless" part or the strapping down?
A "Running Man" scenerio better?

Sixty Grit said...

Opposition to the death penalty is not very consistent. Were there any protests against the execution of the murderer of William Byrd in Texas?

grgeil said...

Someone I read (Taranto?) has made the case that if an innocent person is convicted of murder, his best case scenario is to receive a death sentence. He will have an army of pro-bono legal assistance to prove his innocence and help free him. A life sentence means he'll rot in jail.

chickenlittle said...

Is the goal of the no death penalty/no life sentence crowd to bring us Norwegian style maximum sentences of 21 years a la Breivik? Can I put that card on the table?

Perhaps the goal of these people is to create a living hell on earth.

Fred4Pres said...

Well there is no perfect human system. I do not want to get rid of capital punishment, but I do want to see it used sparingly.

Ross, should we stop letting out people from prison when we find DNA evidence that shows they are innocent? Does that hurt the system or help it by correcting a wrong?

singleton said...

they don't realize how bad life in prison can be, and they don't really believe in life after death, where a much higher court with complete knowledge can render Final Judgment.

ws4whgfb said...

"I've never understood why people who don't trust convictions agonize over the death penalty but blandly accept life imprisonment."

They are not saying all convictions are untrustworthy just that a rare few are. In that case life in prison is a much better penalty than death because someone sentenced to life in prison can be let out if new evidence if found that exonerates him. You can't do that with the death penalty.

BladeDoc said...

I can't believe people that generally believe that government is incompetent in most things (as many conservatives and almost all libertarians do)can turn around and trust its judgement when it comes to killing its citizens. All you have to do is look at the stats of the Innocence Project http://tinyurl.com/25frwdr and see that 17 people on death row have been proved innocent of the crime for which they were to be killed. Furthermore, the whole "life in prison is worse than death" thing sounds good except that revealed preferences pretty show that, given the choice, almost no-one actually chooses the death option.

edutcher said...

A life sentence means the system can still be gamed and he can get out at some point if enough ACLU types can get on it and they find the right appellate court judge.

If he did it, that's another predator out there.

Hagar said...

I do not think that prosecution misconduct is at all rare, particularly in high profile cases.

Just ask Gov. Ryan.

Bob Ellison said...

BladeDoc said Furthermore, the whole "life in prison is worse than death" thing sounds good except that revealed preferences pretty show that, given the choice, almost no-one actually chooses the death option.

...which supports the notion that the death penalty is, in fact, potentially an effective deterrent.

Darrell said...

In the Leftie movie K-Pax, the point was made that Earth was the only planet having jails and incarceration. "They know they did wrong." I guess that is supposed to be enough.

Leland said...

Ironically, it should be that we care about truth, and this innocence argument is not about truth. It is propaganda. I would vote to abolish the death penalty, but I do not accept the use of dishonest manipulation to win support for abolition.

Well stated Professor. I'm a bit for the death penalty, because I can still point to cases where I think it is justly deserved and should be rendered quickly (Nobody cared that Brewer was executed). Yet, it is over utilized. It's hard to have that agreement when the other side uses propaganda suggesting a person is innocent, rather than deserving of a more lenient sentence.

Suggesting that a corpse can not be re-animated or death is irreversible, suggests the person was innocent rather than deserving of a more lenient sentence.

On a slightly different note, sex offenders (at least in Texas) must register for life. It's the closest thing to life without the possibility of parole, because even if on the street you are always on parole. And registration is required for all levels of sex offense. Supposedly they are noted differently, but most people just read the registry. So a dumb 19 year old who slept with her 16 year old boyfriend is registered along with the old man who raped a foster child in his care (a case in which I was juror). This situation makes the "life forever without chance of parole" argument for potentially innocent people a none starter for me. We've been down that road a little and created a greater travesty of justice.

Curious George said...

Ann Althouse said...

"Ironically, it should be that we care about truth, and this innocence argument is not about truth. It is propaganda. I would vote to abolish the death penalty, but I do not accept the use of dishonest manipulation to win support for abolition."

Except when you do it Professor:

"Frankly, I think the core opposition to the death penalty is based on moral opposition to the state killing a defenseless human being, strapping him down and killing him. I personally find that morally wrong."

bagoh20 said...

That's not the problem at all. The message sent by abolishing capital punishment is that we don't really value innocent life enough to punish someone that severely for taking it from the victims. It confirms that we are confused by the difference between selfishly obliterating an innocent life and lawfully and dutifully giving the victim and the murderer the justice they both deserve.

Capital punishment is necessary for a people who truly despise murder. Murder is not simply a really really bad theft.

As to fallibility, it's far less fallible than life in prison which has lead to numerous additional victims at the hands of murderers. Considered simply in terms of cost of human life, capital punishment results in less death of innocents. Isn't that what we are supposed to be concerned with?

Opposition selfishly serves the emotional needs of those opposing it, while they convince themselves that it's the pro side who is driven just by emotion.

I support capital punishment for reasons of emotion as well as justice and protection of the innocent.

Carol_Herman said...

The whole system sucks.

If you're going to keep people imprisoned you also need to make sure they work. And, I don't care if you just add a sewing machine to each stall.

I'd make them hammer their ways to dinner. Food's not free!

So, we start with "everybody gets a lawyer." But NO lawyer says to the judge that the guy is guilty. Instead, we waste this money. And, then we waste the time of good citizens sitting on juries.

What do you want the jurors to do, bring rope?

The whole idea ... is that there are bad people. And, they are in need of punishment.

You want to make sure the criminal is really guilty? ELIMINATE THE LAWYER'S TRICKS! Then, give the jurors all the tools they need to decide.

Read the US Constitution if you get stuck on this point. Our Constitution is getting like the King James version of the bible. There are people out there who can't handle the words. It no longer sounds like English to them.

That's a test that should be there ... to see that the jurors who do sit ... really can handle the English language.

(Sure. I know. Every new citizen will tell the judge his or her English isn't so good. From watching this transpire in a court room, I learned the judge had no sympathy for this argument.)

WE ALSO NEED BETTER JUDGES! Less putting them up on their skin color and genitalia "qualifications."

The day we disqualify the incompetents, citizens will come back and respect the process.

And, IF we tossed criminal illegals back into the countries from which they sprouted ... this, too, would improve our neighborhoods.

Becoming a citizen should be a MAJOR EFFORT! Including learning English. And, our history. The test given that would need to be passed ... is how it used to be done.

PatCA said...

Also, Texas is set to execute the killer of James Byrd soon. If one is truly anti-death penalty, wouldn't one be against it for him as well?

Haven't heard much outrage about his execution.

Oligonicella said...

"I've never understood why people who don't trust convictions agonize over the death penalty but blandly accept life imprisonment."

Really? Your replacement for execution is what?

bagoh20 said...

""Frankly, I think the core opposition to the death penalty is based on moral opposition to the state killing a defenseless human being, strapping him down and killing him. I personally find that morally wrong."

Something being emotionally hard is not the same as being immoral.

I do a lot dog rescue, and I adore dogs. We try to save every one, but occasionally a dog needs to be put down for reasons of health or danger to the public. Even though that dog is innocent of any premeditated wrong, it needs to be done. It's very hard, excruciating in fact, but that does not remove our duty to do what's right.

A dangerous dog is not intelligent enough to actually plan and carry out his "crime", nor is he able to decide not to.

A murderer should know that what he is choosing has a severe price. He then chooses to be executed. We simple insure the transactional integrity. I don't get emotional about that.

Harold said...

There is effectively no life imprisonment in Europe. As soon as capital punishment is abolished, the movement begins to abolish life imprisonment.

The movement has already started in the United States, even before the abolishment of capital punishment. It's simply waiting for a judge to rule "Due to evolving standards of decency and morality....." You know, that old living constitution thing, where words have no meaning except for what a judge feels.

Cedarford said...

John Burgess said...
Perhaps because a life sentence is potentially reversible, while a death penalty isn't, once it's carried out?

==============
Hypo - I'm in jail on a life sentence, after killing my wife for being so much of a bitch that I lost it one night. 15 years in, my lawyer wins on appeal of a police evidence collection technicality and springs me.

How do you "reverse" matters and give me 15 years of my life back and restitute me for all my lost earnings, loss of home (wife was justly dead so she couldn't pay the mortgage)?? If I have a lifespan that should be 78, how does a lawyer dressed in robes tack on the 15 lost years to let me live until 93??

===============
Of course that isn't even close to being the stupidest argument that liberals, progressive Jews of the media, mincing Euroweenies, and "black community leaders" deploy.

1. In a country where we accidentally kill 95,000 innocent people through state-sanctioned hospitals and medicine? And know war is all about killing innocent people by accident or because they are acceptable losses in certain operations? That we accept the "Narrative" that one innocent man killed by the state will destroy the whole justice system?

2. The usual suspects "Lazarus Argument" that 'killing the killer is absurd because it doesn't bring the victim back".
Yes, and slamming 3 thugs who raped a woman with 20 years in jail each doesn't undo the rape. So why jail the rapists?

3. Jails are dangerous places. High suicide and murder rates. If you send someone to jail and another inmate kills them, then exonorating evidence is found have you committed de facto state-sanctioned killing?

Almost Ali said...

What if all those now exonerated had been executed?

Our so-called justice system has become a racket.

Oligonicella said...

Not registering at NYT:

Whomever --

"...moral opposition to the state killing a defenseless human being, strapping him down and killing him. I personally find that morally wrong."

Sir or Madam, the fact that the individual cut off the child's head, stabbed and raped the mother and finally doused the father with gasoline and lit it (who he had tied to a chair to witness the above) sort of disputes your thinking of him/her as 'defenseless'.

I suggest you first and foremost come to an understanding of that word and not use is incorrectly.

I think the word you're actually looking for is 'restrained'.

I find your inability to discern the difference morally repugnant.

Tit for tat, and all.

Oligonicella said...

Harold --

"You know, that old living constitution thing, where words have no meaning except for what a judge feels."

But, he'll have empathy.


Almost Ali --

"What if all those now exonerated had been executed?"

Then you would be talking about a hypothetical world. From there I can take it to utopia or dystopia, depending on my choices of further hypotheticals.

mikesixes said...

If someone is convicted and sentenced to life, and later found to be innocent,he can be released. If he's executed, he can't be revived. Does that clarify it for you?

Michael said...

I rather like the death penalty but wish it were executed a bit more speedily. The man who shot McKinley was dead in a few weeks having been arrested, tried, convicted and executed. Today,of course, the defense would launch the idea that his body had been briefly occupied by an alien which left him immediately after the shooting. Very good chance that a jury would consider this deeply, thoughtfully, because maybe, just maybe the man who shot McKinley in front of hundreds of witnesses really didn't shoot McKinley in front of hundreds of witnesses. Perhaps there is a shadow of a reasonable doubt that it was another gunman in the crowed. Etc.

Off with their heads.

cassandra lite said...

If he's innocent, a death-row prisoner has a better chance of having his conviction overturned than does a lifer, thanks to the automatic appeals and additional scrutiny that habeas corpus petitions get.

William said...

Isn't the fact that there are no protestors for the Byrd execution an implicit recognition that there are, in fact, some crimes that deserve capital punishment?....I would like the Ford Foundation to fund a study about what effects the charitable treatment of murderers has upon the families of the victims. Troy Davis and his supporters presumed the moral high ground over the family of the cop he murdered. That must have been galling. I know that when Richard Speck told about what a fine time he was having in prison it drove the families of his victims half crazy. If it helps just one widow find closure and get on with her life, it would be worth it.....Mexico has abolished the state administered death penalty. Mexicans, despite the reverence of their government for human life, continue to kill each other at a brisk pace. Isn't it the higher moral duty of the government to suppress murder rather than eliminate capital punishment?

miller said...

So I'm against the death penalty. That's the first thing that has to go.

Then we can look at LWOP. And yes, we should look at it, because I think it is a way out of a dilemma.

If we really think there are crimes that deserve the penalty of losing a life, whether by execution or by throwing into a dungeon, we should be damned sure we got the right guy.

rcocean said...

They make all kind of silly agruements, like the "Life in prison is worth than death".

rcocean said...

In order to believe Davis innocent, you have to believe that the Georgia Parole Board and the Federal judge who looked at the new evidence were willing to send an innocent man to his death for absolutely no reason.

bagoh20 said...

"...we should be damned sure we got the right guy."

I absolutely agree that before any execution special review of the case should take place, but it should not involve adversarial lawyering. We need to verify the truth, not replay the game. Reanalysis of the key evidence, like DNA, should be done, quickly, automatically, and then execute, or if real substantial proven discrepancy are found, retry.

A death penalty should cost the state more, but not from the slow wasteful silliness we hand ring through now.

MikeR said...

"In order to believe Davis innocent, you have to believe that the Georgia Parole Board and the Federal judge who looked at the new evidence were willing to send an innocent man to his death for absolutely no reason."

Note TNC's article in the Atlantic, where he brings a post about hundreds of people there to protest the execution. All black. Kind of odd, no? Kind of reminds one of the OJ Simpson case. And no, I don't think all of them read up on the case. They just had no problem thinking that the people of Georgia hate them.

PatCA said...

You're right about Europe, Harold. The Norway mass murderer is reportedly looking at a max of 21 years in jail for killing 80+ people.

Ritmo Re-Animated said...

I've never understood why people who don't trust convictions agonize over the death penalty but blandly accept life imprisonment.

No such person is "blandly" accepting life imprisonment, whatever that means. They are saying that an error in judgment resulting in loss of freedom irrevocably and forever is worse than an error in judgment that does not.

Do you disagree?

Try coming up with a less dishonest portrayal of the better argument for once.

Mark M said...

+1 John Burgess. Kind of obvious.

andinista said...

Two diametrics.

1. There's far too much police and prosecutor misconduct. Trials with DP need to be scrupulously, transparently clean, with no irregularities, no lost evidence,, and no witness coaching, etc, or no DP.

2. It's only in rich societies with lots of surplus value that the social contractors can steal from the citizenry, that LWOPOP is considered. In frontier societies, if you rape a girl or kill a man, they hang you, and right quick, because nobody is interested in throwing scarce good money after bad. California will soon be returning to those ways, as they will no longer be able to afford to consider the delicate sensibilities of the social contractors

Sam Hall said...

Think about this. In WWII, we drafted 10 million men. Many of those men did not want to go to war. In fact, over 20,000 men went to prison because they refused to serve.
Some of the men who did serve died in combat. Combat we forced on them for the good of the nation.
You can look at capital punishment the same way, it is for the good of the nation. If we make a mistake and put an innocent person to death, is it morally any different than the draft?

showbiz111 said...

Agree with Burgess, liberals hope that ten or twenty years down the line they could find an activist antiwestern judge to reverse the sentences of heinous criminals, and the criminals couldn't be retried due to death, faulty memories, loss of critical evidence, etc., so they'd have to be freed to wreak further havoc on society.
We should also recognize that liberals/progressives/democraps never talk about abolishing the death penalty with unsympathetic murderers like the murderer of Byrd in Texas, but cherry pick their convicts to mislead the public and to downplay the negative ramifications of their policy choice.

Cedarford said...

mikesixes said...
If someone is convicted and sentenced to life, and later found to be innocent,he can be released. If he's executed, he can't be revived. Does that clarify it for you?

==================
Not really. All jail does is take some or all of your years of a productive, fulfilling life with family or friends away from you. All the death sentence does is take at away all those years at once (after those 20-30 year long appeals processes finish further enriching lawyers).

Either way, if you are innocent or guilty sprung on a technicality or by a great lawyers sophistry - you still don't get those years back.

Even with the death penalty, you always come out ahead of the people you killed.

Jerome said...

Every year, the American Transportation ystem kills over ten thousand people. At least half of them are innocent. Just so you can have orange juice for breakfast. How do you sleep at night?

jamboree said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RigelDog said...

Perhaps the average Joe or Jane who is against capital punishment doesn't dwell on the potential injustice of a life sentence, but the activists are going to be right there if/when capital punishment is abolished.

Revenant said...

I've never understood why people who don't trust convictions agonize over the death penalty but blandly accept life imprisonment.

There isn't a viable alternative to imprisonment, so we have to use it even though the innocent are sometimes wrongly punished with it.

That is not true of the death penalty; imprisonment is an acceptable alternative to execution, both as punishment and as a means of protecting people from the criminal.

Job said...

"That is not true of the death penalty; imprisonment is an acceptable alternative to execution, both as punishment and as a means of protecting people from the criminal."

Not necessarily true.

Imprisonment is less useful at all three goals of the justice system:
1) deterence
2) incapacitation
3) justice

1) is argued constantly but the best econometric evidence is that the death penalty has a considerable deterent effect.

2) No one who has ever been executed has killed again.

3) The infliction of death brings justice in a way that imprisonment does not. It uniquely asserts the demand of the innocent to be protected from thugs.

Ritmo Re-Animated said...

Every year, the American Transportation ystem kills over ten thousand people. At least half of them are innocent. Just so you can have orange juice for breakfast. How do you sleep at night?

Infinitely better, seeing as how use of our roads is a choice that you can opt out of, whereas being punished for a crime that you didn't commit is not.

What a nice, rational, well-informed commentariat is being cultivated here!

Ritmo Re-Animated said...

the best econometric evidence is that the death penalty has a considerable deterent effect.

Bullshit. Says who?

Give a citation that contradicts this one.

Bob Ellison said...

Ritmo: CBS News: Death Penalty Deters Murders, Studies Say - February 2009

Ritmo Re-Animated said...

That must be one hell of a deterrent effect, Bob, that it leaves the pro-death penalty states with consistently higher homicide rates than the non-death penalty states.

Maybe the death penalty states are just more violent to begin with.

Either way, it doesn't seem to speak well of their societies.

Ritmo Re-Animated said...

Sunstein said that moral questions aside, the data needs more study.

Critics of the findings have been vociferous.

Some claim that the pro-deterrent studies made profound mistakes in their methodology, so their results are untrustworthy. Another critic argues that the studies wrongly count all homicides, rather than just those homicides where a conviction could bring the death penalty. And several argue that there are simply too few executions each year in the United States to make a judgment.

"We just don't have enough data to say anything," said Justin Wolfers, an economist at the Wharton School of Business who last year co-authored a sweeping critique of several studies, and said they were "flimsy" and appeared in "second-tier journals."


It would seem that in a society where the government sanctions the use of premeditated murder against its own citizens, the citizens might be more willing to consider the act of murder for their own purposes.

Under such a warped social contract, yes, I would think that the deterrence of the penalty is stronger as the morality of the issue is settled, and considered permissible. From that point, it just comes down to "superior firepower" in the way of securing a killing, which is on the state's side.

I'd rather have my state convince me of doing right versus wrong through superior morality and example than through superior firepower. But maybe that's just me. And the people with whom I prefer to associate and live amongst.

MikeR said...

Ritmo, if Cass Sunstein thinks it's a powerful deterrent, and each execution saves multiple lives - well, it's probably true.

MikeR said...

Okay, Ritmo, never mind. I thought you were interested in discussing the facts. But this stuff... We all understand that anti-death-penalty critics will brush aside any and all evidence. No problem finding someone who will tell you what you want to hear.

Now, try to find someone like Cass Sunstein, an anti-death-penalty liberal, who is more interested in the truth than in winning.

Oligonicella said...

Ritmo Re-Animated --

"It would seem that in a society where the government sanctions the use of premeditated murder against its own citizens, the citizens might be more willing to consider the act of murder for their own purposes."

And yet, we don't. As demonstrated by a growing population and shrinking murder rate. Explain the conundrum, please.

Ritmo Re-Animated said...

I thought you were interested in discussing the facts.

The fact that non-death punishment states have consistently lower homicide rates (by around 25% - 40% year to year) would seem to be salient to me. I find that to be more relevant than what the more violent states accomplish or don't based on some year to year transient change to their death punishment policies, and bad methodologies (Yes, non-capital crimes shouldn't matter in the analysis, by definition).

Ritmo Re-Animated said...

And yet, we don't. As demonstrated by a growing population and shrinking murder rate. Explain the conundrum, please.

There is no discrepancy - or as you say, "conundrum". Non Punishment by Death states have consistently lower homicide rates. If that discrepancy bothers you, the facts shouldn't care, they just are. And if you want an explanation that suits you, you're free to come up with one.

But again, the facts are clear.

Lower rates are a nationwide phenom; they hold true regardless of a state's punishment by death policy or not. The Freakonomics guys attributed this to the national availability of legal abortion post-Roe v. Wade, but you guys probably don't want to hear about that.

Ritmo Re-Animated said...

Just to reiterate:

Year 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998

Murder Rate in Death Penalty States* 9.5 9.94 9.51 9.69 9.23 8.59 7.72 7.09 6.51

Murder Rate in
Non-death
Penalty States 9.16 9.27 8.63 8.81 7.88 6.78 5.37 5.00 4.61

Percent
Difference 4%
7%
10%
10%
17%
27%
44%
42%
41%

Ritmo Re-Animated said...

In 2009, 3 non-punishment by death states had murder rates higher than 4 (per 100,000?) the remaining 11 did not, whereas 24 Death Punishment states had higher rates than 4 (11 did not).

Clearly Death Punishment states are more violent states. Perhaps there is no causal relationship at all; or perhaps causality works in the other direction. It is of course possible that the willingness of a state's government to administer Punishment by Death just reflects the more violent overall nature of most of the people in that state (legislators included), is something endemic in the populations there, and is not something that that they could change by being more humane as a government.

At least this explanation would have the virtue of satisfying conservatives by proposing that it is difficult to say that they could deter social violence by being less violent as a government.

But I digress. Electrocute away!!! Bzzzzzz Bzzzzzzz!!!!!! Burn Burn Burn!!!!

Ritmo Re-Animated said...

Anyone else find it interesting to know that the top 10 countries resorting to executions in 2010 were:

1. People's Republic of China
2. Iran
3. North Korea
4. Yemen
5. United States
6. Saudi Arabia
7. Libya
8. Syria
9. Bangladesh
10. Somalia

Very totalitarian company we keep with this habit.

Maybe violence and authoritarianism are linked.

Methadras said...

You will most likely, if on death row, live a far better life than the standard inmate lifer because the death penalty is a mostly toothless judgement that has been diluted to the point of near uselessness.

Boaz said...

Life imprisonment is life spent doing what the government tell you to do 24/7. How is this not the leftist ideal?

denmotherblog said...

"I've never understood why people who don't trust convictions agonize over the death penalty but blandly accept life imprisonment."

I don't "blandly" accept life imprisonment, but I'll try to articulate my practical reasons for opposing.

First of all, in many states, a life sentence carries the possibility of parole and thus isn't truly a life sentence. Especially when the offender is young, there's a big difference between that and life without parole like we have here in Massachusetts for first-degree murder.

Second, and more importantly, our justice system is fallible, carried out as it is by people, and we people tend to make mistakes despite the greatest care and the best intentions. That's why we have an appeals process, among other opportunities to avoid or correct mistakes. That those processes sometimes favor a guilty person is a price we choose to pay to safeguard the rights of the innocent. But those processes aren't infallible, either. While it is never possible to give back time lost, it is possible to right the wrong going forward. We have the future to correct a mistake.

Permanent punishments ignore our fallibility and contradict our system's preference to err on the side of caution. Execution (or, as in other countries, cutting off hands or feet, blinding, castration, etc.) leave no future in which to correct a mistake.

denmotherblog said...

Ritmo, even though I'm against the death penalty and want it abolished in this country, I reject the point of your comment, i.e. that capital punishment as practiced in the United States is anything close to that in the other countries on your list. Yes, I acknowledge that dead is dead, no matter where you are. But we have more due process protections (imperfect thought they may be) than the other nine countries combined. We also bend over backward to use methods that aren't painful (as opposed to, say, stoning). The equivalency you imply simply doesn't exist.

That list (I saw it a lot when I was active in the abolition movement) drives me crazy, along with the tendency to argue that every person on death row has some sort of mitigating circumstance. Those are emotional arguments that are no more sound than the emotional arguments used in favor of capital punishment. Ultimately, I believe, we'll only prevail with reason.

DCS said...

Wrongful convictions are of greatest interest when a punishment like the death penalty is involved, but as Ann points out, life imprisonment is arguably not much of a improvement, considering the length of time it takes to carry out a death sentence.
I'm not persuaded by arguments about the lack of uniformity in giving the death penalty. That happens all the time in the law, civil and criminal. What about the argument that blacks are disproportionately executed? Here http://lagriffedulion.f2s.com/DP.htm isa statistical treatment of the question, and one sure to displease liberals.

Bryan C said...

Absolutely. Especially considering that a life sentence in our incompetently run prisons is likely to include physical and sexual abuse, with a not insignificant chance of being killed by other prisoners. And, of course, their entire life outside prison is likely to be gone forever by the time the state gets around to letting them out.

I have no moral objections to the death penalty. Pragmatically, however, it seems like it's more trouble than it's worth, seeing as it costs a fortune and takes decades to actually execute someone. There comes a point where prudence turns into paralysis, and we've gotten there.

We really should institute mandatory DNA testing, whenever the evidence is available. And I believe prosecutors should also be punished severely for cases in which people were falsely imprisoned.

Ritmo Re-Animated said...

I reject the point of your comment, i.e. that capital punishment as practiced in the United States is anything close to that in the other countries on your list.

I don't know that capital punishment as practiced in the U.S. is "close" to that in those other countries. But I think the national correlation is worth investigating and perhaps says something about our character. Especially when the reaction to high "punishment" rates consists of cheers.

You go look at the evidence of what the man who elicited those cheers did to Todd Willingham, and tell me that the nature of that reaction and impulse was non-authoritarian and freedom-protecting.