Crime And Punishment

This is the latest in my series of blog entries taking a fresh look at a variety of topics. I’ve set up a page on the blog explaining the project and linking to my entries. This post’s topic is “Jails And Prisons.”

Jail Cell

Image by abardwell via Flickr

Having just finished reading John Grisham’s latest sermon-in-novel-form and having been reminded of a conversation we had not that long ago at my Bible study group, I’m going to go a little further afield with this one, and deal with criminal justice in general.

Specifically, Grisham’s The Confessiondeals a lot with the death penalty, writing a fictional account of an innocent man scheduled to be executed. Two major issues rose to the surface for me — is it right to kill someone as punishment, and is it right to take the risk of accidentally executing innocent people?

The former was the issue we discussed at my Bible study group. But, to me, the issue of appropriate punishment is asking the wrong question. I very much believe the death penalty should never be used. I’m also in favor of the death penalty.

I’m less concerned with what happens after crimes are committed than in preventing crime.  That doesn’t mean I don’t care about the former, only that I think, as our society, our focus should be more on the latter, both for the sake of potential victims and potential criminals. A lot of that is cultural; we should be fostering an environment that prevents people with opportunities that are more appealing than crime, and should be instilling values that encourage people to make other choices. But part of that should be making crime as unappealing an option as possible.

After the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the entire world pretty much agreed that the weapons used were horrific, and that atomic and nuclear weapons should never be used again. We proceeded to build arsenals of those weapons, not so that they would be used but so that they wouldn’t. We created a culture in which the cost of using nuclear weapons far outweighed any potential benefit. And it worked.

The death penalty should, ideally, work the same way. It should serve as the ultimate deterrent. The price that isn’t worth paying.  To the extent that it fails, the question should be why does it fail, and how can we as a society create a better deterrent?

And, along those lines, I have a hard time with the idea that society has blood on its hands when someone is executed for committing a capital offense. The death penalty is not a surprise. It’s a cultural contract. If you live in a death penalty state, as a citizen, you have a societal contract with the state that if you commit certain actions, you could lose your life. If you then choose to commit those actions, you are choosing to forfeit your life.

If someone gets drunk and gets in a car, they do so knowing that bad things could happen. If they die, society understands it’s because that person made a choice that resulted in their death. If they died by running into a utility pole, no one would argue that society was wrong to build utility poles. People would understand that the death was not the fault of the utility pole, but rather the result of the choices that led to the car hitting the pole. The death penalty is a utility pole. It doesn’t not instigate deaths, but deaths result when people make choices that run them into it. Society no more has blood on its hands for having a death penalty than it does for building utility poles — you should no more commit a capital offense than you should drink and drive, and if you choose to do so, the results of your actions are on your hands. In an ideal society, neither utility poles nor the death penalty would be involved in any deaths.

The issue of tolerances is the more interesting one to me, and one I’m not really sure I know my feelings on. If you have a death penalty, you have the possibility that innocent people are executed because of that. If that happens, none of the things I said before apply — that person would not be dying as a result of their own actions, nor would they have done anything the death penalty should or could have deterred. That said, going back to the utility pole analogy, people are killed by utility poles in accidents that are not their fault, and yet we still don’t say society should stop building utility poles. It’s within our tolerances. We’re willing to tolerate some number of accidental deaths because of the benefits we get. The same issue is true for law enforcement in general. Innocent people die in instances involving using legal use of deadly force or in high-speed pursuits. But our tolerances allow that. I’m not going to do the research now, but I would imagine the number of alleged innocent deaths from capital punishment are a tiny fraction of total alleged innocent deaths caused by law enforcement and criminal justice. It’s a question of what we think is worth it. It’s a question of what our tolerances are.

Our cultural tolerances intrigue me at times, and were brought out in sharp relief for me in February 2003. At the beginning of the month, seven people were killed when the space shuttle Columbia broke up during reentry. Toward the end of the month, 100 people were killed in a fire at a Great White nightclub concert. Guess which one prompted people to say that we as a nation needed to make changes? Seven people die in the cause of space exploration, and it gets questioned. A hundred people die so that pyrotechnics can pave the way for “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” and that’s a tragic but acceptable loss.  I’m not saying society should have demanded changes because of the fire. But I do believe we should be as willing to accept purposeful deaths as we are purposeless ones.