Monday, April 21, 2014

Does the death penalty still matter?

Time and again, capital punishment never seems to last long in the public discourse. It begs the question, is the conversation still relevant today?

By Jon Overton

Of all the moral issues in the public discussion, the death penalty has never truly held people’s attention for long. For better or for worse, abortion and gay marriage have easily been the focal points of the two most controversial moral debates in recent memory.

Yet somehow the death penalty, the harshest possible punishment that the criminal justice system can dole out, has been left out in the cold. But maybe there’s a reason for that.

In a recent survey, the Pew Research Center found that a shrinking majority of Americans, 55 percent, favor the death penalty for murderers. Support for the controversial punishment hasn’t been this low in about 40 years.

Interestingly, only majorities of black and Hispanic respondents opposed the death penalty. On most other measures, like education, age, and gender, there seems to be across the board approval for capital punishment, though differences are a matter of degree.

Pew points out that support for the death penalty has fallen alongside declining violent crime rates in the United States, which is a surprisingly nice finding. It’s almost like our perceptions are in sync with reality.

But don’t get too excited. Most Americans seem to perpetually believe that crime is increasing, as Gallup’s poll results from 1996 to 2013 show. To be fair, violent crime rates increased slightly from 2011 to 2012, but that doesn’t explain the near constant impression that crime is on the rise.

Weirdly enough, the death penalty is barely in the public discourse, though its prominence ebbs and flows. The debate surrounding capital punishment is one fraught with silly arguments that are obviously post-hoc (i.e. after-the-fact) justifications for coming down on a given side.

The cost of keeping someone in prison for life vs. the cost of executing a prisoner is a prime example. If being cheap is the priority for our criminal justice system, we might as well shut down all prisons and resort solely to ticketing.

And of course, it’s always fun to point out that the United States is one of just a few western countries that still has the death penalty. Here’s why that point alone is irrelevant: culturally, socially, racially, politically, economically, geographically, and religiously, the United States is extremely different from other Western countries. What works well for them may not work for us.

There are some relevant arguments, of course. The Innocence Project has documented a number of cases in which prisoners were wrongly convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. If someone is wrongly imprisoned, the state can try to make up for that, but if that person has already been executed, there’s not much you can do.

Proponents of the death penalty have often suggested that the punishment has a deterrent effect on future crime. The idea goes that criminals know they may be executed if they murder someone, so they avoid committing homicide. However, in 2012, the National Research Council issued a report explaining that most of the existing studies on deterrence and the death penalty are severely flawed. The Council therefore cautioned against using them to inform what seems to be a never-ending argument.

But perhaps the death penalty debate doesn’t even matter. Consider what Steven Pinker, the Canadian psychologist wrote in his 2011 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.”
... in present-day America, a “death sentence” is a bit of a fiction, because mandatory legal reviews delay most executions indefinitely, and only a few tenths of a percentage point of the nation’s murderers are ever put to death. And the most recent trend points downward: the peak year for [recent] executions was 1999, and since then the number of executions per year has been almost halved.
Pinker’s account generally fits with the pattern of capital punishment just last year. Figures from the Death Penalty Information Center show that in the United States, only 39 people were executed in 2013. On average, they were put to death 15 years after sentencing.

Still, there’s a deeper issue at hand that’s often overlooked: morality.

The calculus of the death penalty depends on how you look at the situation. As a proportion of the total number of murderers locked up right now, capital punishment is used so rarely as to be virtually nonexistent in the United States. If you think that executing people is morally wrong, no matter the crime, then maybe the numbers aren’t as important.

Ultimately, when we talk about the death penalty, this is the core issue that everyone seems to hopscotch around: If someone intentionally kills another person, has the perpetrator forfeited the right to live? Is capital punishment really justice, or is that simply revenge?

There are a lot of ways you can think of the phrase “an eye for an eye.” Most commonly it’s assumed that it means you should retaliate against those who wrong you. Another way to look at it is as a limit on how far you can go in that retaliation. In a sense, if someone gouges your eye out, the most you can do to them is take just one of their eyes — nothing more.

In a sense, this is how justice ideally works. The punishment should be somehow equal to the crime.

For many of you, I’m fairly certain, the death penalty itself is abhorrent. It’s easy if you’re a pacifist to say that if loved ones were killed by another person, you wouldn’t want the murderer to be executed. I’ve been lucky enough never to know a victim of homicide, so I don’t know how I’d feel.

Still, it’s nice to say we have to be above revenge, that it won’t provide closure, it won’t bring back whoever we lost, and we have to be better than the other guy. I generally agree with that.

But when people seek revenge for being wronged, it’s not about feeling good or trying desperately to bring that person back. To them, it’s about setting the world right and restoring a sense of balance. They don’t necessarily want to do it. They feel like they have to do it.

As Harvey Dent (Two-Face) from the 2008 Batman film, “The Dark Knight” put it when he was trying to avenge the death of a woman he loved, “It’s not about what I want. It’s about what’s fair!”

And this is why we have courts. It would be disastrous if we lived in a society where vigilante-style revenge was the norm. We don’t want to put emotionally involved individuals fully in charge of doling out punishments. Even though it sometimes fails, the criminal justice system is designed to be an impartial judge, preventing excessive retribution.

There may be a natural impulse to exact revenge, a feeling that it is the righteous thing to do, but that does not mean that we, as a society, must condone it by permitting the execution of criminals.

Jon Overton is the media editor of Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology. He also writes for The Daily Iowan.

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