Thursday, June 11, 2015

In (Partial) Defense of the Death Penalty

With the recent sentence of the death penalty being given to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss some of the issues surrounding the death penalty.

To get started, let me state where I stand on the issue. I generally support the death penalty in theory, but oppose it in practice. My opposition mainly is due to two issues:
  • Trusting the legal system to not sentence innocent people to death
  • Humane methods of imposing the death penalty
To be clear, I don't support the death penalty as a method of retributive justice. I am generally against forms of justice that involve making people suffer. This is a big reason why I support the death penalty in the first place. I think it is far crueler to lock a person up for life with no hope of freedom in an environment that forces them to develop the worst aspects of themselves in order to survive, than to humanely put them down.

I understand that when people do bad things, there is often a very strong desire by the victims, families of the victims, and often the public in general to see that person suffer as part of justice, but I don't think this is an impulse we should embrace, but rather this is the ugly part of us that makes us more like the person we are trying to punish, and the one we should work to move away from.

I see our system of imprisoning and punishing people to serve three useful purposes:
  • Stopping dangerous people from having the opportunity to offend again
  • Providing a deterrent to those who might be considering committing a crime
  • Rehabilitating the offender if possible
Making the offender suffer should not be on that list, no matter how good it might make other people feel. I'm sure you've heard when some rapist or child molester is sent to prison, people say things like, "Good, now I hope he gets raped in prison". Maybe you've even said and thought this yourself. Stop and think about what a horrible thing this is to wish on any human being. And also stop and think about how often innocent people get sent to prison. So you're ultimately hoping for a system that subjects innocent people to that kind of suffering on top of falsely imprisoning them. Everyone should wish for a safe prison environment where offenders can serve their time without fear of being raped or killed, if for no other reason than for the sake of all the innocent people who end up in there. You can't pick and choose, hoping that only the actually guilty people are made to suffer.


So let's talk about some of the common objections to the death penalty, and why I don't think they're sufficient.

Putting someone to death is cruel.

Certainly, it can be cruel if done in a cruel way. I don't at all advocate for barbaric execution methods like the electric chair. But given the existence of drugs used for peaceful euthanasia in countries like the Netherlands, if you can't put someone to death humanely by lethal injection then you're simply doing it wrong.

Putting someone to death is not cruel enough.

The flipside of the previous objection, this is where people feel like the death penalty lets an offender off easy, essentially by not forcing them to stew for years and think about what they've done. There are a few issues here.

One, if the offender is a psychopath, they will probably never end up feeling remorse for what they did, no matter how long they're imprisoned. At best, they'll feel bad that they got caught.

Two, this argument really doesn't make sense to me coming from any religious person who believes in an afterlife. Surely, you feel that he's going to get adequately punished by your god after he dies, right?

Three, as I've stated above, I don't think the desire to make an offender suffer is one we should be promoting. If an offender is unlikely to be able to be rehabilitated into a trustworthy member of society, then putting them down is, in my opinion, the most humane thing you can do. And everyone else will have to accept that making the offender suffer is not going to undo the damage, and they're going to have to find more constructive ways to work through their grief and loss. Enjoying the suffering of others is never a path to long term psychological wellbeing.

Putting someone to death makes us just as bad as them.

Obviously, putting someone to death as punishment is not at all the same thing as, say, a murderer killing a bunch of innocent people. Equating these things makes as much sense as equating killing in self defense and murder. Just because a death is involved does not make them morally the same thing.

Consider a different example: have you ever heard anyone say that we shouldn't put kidnappers in prison because that would make us just as bad as them? We imprison a kidnapper against his will even though that's what he did to someone else, because it's not at all the same thing. Similarities between the crime and the punishment are just that, similarities, and they don't necessarily equate the two things morally.

Death is what he wants, and so we shouldn't give it to him.

This is one of the arguments that has come up in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev case. The idea that he wants to be a martyr, that he wants to go to heaven and get his 72 virgins or whatever, so we shouldn't give it to him.

Firstly, if you're not a Muslim yourself, this argument makes no sense, since you, by definition, do not believe he has the reward waiting for him that he thinks he has, so what better punishment than giving him the rude awakening? The longer he lives, the longer he gets to enjoy the thought of all the rewards that he thinks are waiting for him.

But probably more importantly, who cares what he wants? Again, the object isn't retribution and suffering. You keep him from harming others, you send a deterrence message to other would-be criminals, and if you can't reasonably expect to ever rehabilitate and release him, you humanely put him down. But fucking with him based on what he wants shouldn't be part of the program, because we should strive to be better than that.

My Objections

So, as I mentioned at the beginning, I have my own objections to the death penalty in practice. There have been far too many innocent people put on death row in the US to be able to support the death penalty with the justice system as it currently is there (and I'm sure the same is true in other countries), except in the rare cases where the guilt of the person is really not up for debate. This is the case with someone like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, where no one, as far as I'm aware, has ever argued that he is innocent. If this was the kind of certainty bar that was used in all death penalty cases then I would be willing to reconsider that stance.

And the other one is the apparent difficulty in humanely putting criminals to death. I don't know if this is due to incompetence, or a secret desire to actually make these people suffer, but it seems ridiculous that this should be an issue. And yet it is, and so I wouldn't support the death penalty unless that was sorted out.

My Reasons for Support

So why do I support the death penalty in theory? Well, in general I think our criminal justice system should be more focused on rehabilitation, and I think society would be a far better place if that was taken more seriously. In practice, it seems that going to prison tends to do the opposite of rehabilitate, and when combined with limiting a person's options for getting law abiding employment after they are released, tends to send people down a negative life spiral rather than give them a genuine chance to make amends and start again, even if they really do feel remorse and want to do that.

But for some people, even with a perfect system of rehabilitation, this will simply never work for them. Whether due to mental illness like psychopathy; a mental state that is so damaged by bad life experience that it really can't be repaired; the need for a strong enough deterrent for some crimes so it is understood that if you commit them you will never be set free; or due to crimes so heinous that the general public would simply never feel safe if they were set free; humanely putting that person down is not an act of vengeance or cruelty, but the opposite: a pragmatic choice and an act of decency when a perfect solution doesn't exist.


  1. So then why should _we_ make the choice between the cruelty of imprisonment and the cruelty of death, rather than giving that choice to the person who we've deemed must suffer one of them? If the imprisoned had access to legal euthanasia, would you then be completely against the death penalty?

  2. It's a separate issue about when and how offenders should be allowed to choose their punishment, but generally speaking I think it's reasonable. I'm 100% in favour of legal euthanasia as a choice that everyone has access to (and I think it's terrible that most countries won't even let a terminally ill person in agonizing pain do it), so I can't see an issue with it being a choice for a person who has nothing but prison to look forward to, assuming it wasn't then used as an excuse to make prisons even more terrible, as a way to persuade criminals to kill themselves.

  3. So it's an act of decency to execute someone who would rather spend their life in prison?

  4. Sure, it can be. "Decency" is about society as a whole. The desires of the offender are just one factor in the equation. If the only options on the table are years of cruel imprisonment or the death penalty, then it could well be considered decent to impose the death penalty. It is like (but not the same as) a slave owner offering death or slavery to a slave, and if they choose slavery, using that as proof that they clearly *want* to be slaves.

    But it also might clarify the situation if you know why the offender chooses imprisonment. For example, many terminally ill people would not choose euthanasia even if they had the choice, not because they'd rather live in agony, but because they believe that it's a sin and they'll go to hell. Their false understanding makes them make the "wrong" choice, and in this case should not be taken as evidence that people don't want euthanasia, but rather as evidence of the negative effects of some religious beliefs.

    But I also suspect that you're trying to play some kind of "gotcha" game here rather than actually trying to have a thoughtful conversation about this topic. The fact that you've offered several questions but no actual opinion of your own kind of gives it away.

  5. My opinions are basically the same as yours - how drear. :) Hence just picking around the edges. But I don't like your calculus of cruelty. You're probably right that it's less cruel in some or even most cases, but I'm really not keen on our society (or its servants) making that judgement if it isn't necessary. And I don't get either of your paragraphs supporting it: Their choice to be a slave was already made when they committed their crime, and the second seems to suggest that it's OK to forcibly euthanise people as long as we understand their motives for living and don't agree with them.

  6. I'm not sure that I quite understand your objections since I don't really see what you've written as encapsulating anything I've written.

    But that's fine, I think the best sort of summary of how I view the issue, is that I see drawing the line at the death penalty to be an artificial distinction, as though locking people in solitary for years, making them fear (or actually suffer) rape or murder, making them live amongst other criminals and mentally ill, all of that is fine and not cruel, but the death penalty is somehow unthinkable. It's like a "as long as you don't kill them, it doesn't matter how badly you treat them" kind of mentality that doesn't make any sense to me.

    Sure, the death penalty is irreversible in the case that you later discover the person was innocent, but falsely imprisoning someone and then releasing them after 20 years is irreversible too. You can't give them back the years you took from them, the years lost with their family, the destruction of their career prospects, hopes and dreams.