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
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
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.
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.