THE PENALTY OF DEATH
Modern forms of execution consist of firing squad, hanging, and the electric chair, with the most current method being lethal injections. Do we absolutely need such a punishment? In what ways is it needed? Before the questions are answered personally, let me explore some of the history of the utilization of the death penalty.
THE STATE OF OKLAHOMA was the first state to utilize lethal injection, a procedure which began in 1977. Oklahoma is the same state set to tragically put to death Richard Glossip, this Wednesday (he was granted two-week stay 5-hrs before today’s execution: 9/16/15). Currently, the federal government – including 31 other states permits judges and juries to kill people, specifically, people convicted of murder (Ross, 2015).
Early American executions were routinely accomplished on lesser criminals: people such as robbers, or for rape convictions, and more aptly for treasonous acts. Though this is no longer done, except for treason, the manner in which industrialized societies have elected to killed people did not always appear as seemingly clean, quiet, and distant from the public as a lethal injection.
The Romans publicly crucified criminals, most notably, Jesus of Nazareth. Before criminals were crucified – in ancient Rome, the condemned persons were sometimes given a drink mix of wine and myrrh – a mild narcotic concoction called galla. When condemned did not partake of anesthesia, as Jesus did not, the tortuous activities could be a most gruesome spectacle. Even crucifying ancient humans, occurring in the thousands, did not deter crime.
Crucifixion means a victim is nailed to two sections of crossed-wood beams. Nails seven-and-a-half-inches long, we’re used to hold a sagging body of a full grown adult. Once the person was nailed to the cross it was positioned upright, for all to see – including carrion eaters. Neither blood loss nor shock was the primary cause of death for those who were crucified; it was a helpless suffocation. The two rebels who were crucified next to Jesus, had their legs broken in order to expedite their deaths, so their feet could less be used to prop their damaged bodies up (Cawthorne, 2006).
The Romans also practiced beheading, but this was typically done to Roman citizens considered military deviants – and an honorable death, likely too quick for Roman tastes. The rare instances of Christians being beheaded publicly occurred at the behest of Emperor Caligula (ibid, 34).
While contemporary America does not engage in the type of spectacle as ancient Romans did, the implications of state-sanctioned death penalty now, reflect a spiteful and conflicted people.
2,000-years removed from Rome, philosophies have not really changed. Marked consternation and the power of everyday distractions among America’s voters deters coalition and activism. Until a sizable majority refuses to enforce this penalty, we, to some degree resemble ancient Rome, and our rationalizations of deterrence, punishment, and humiliation remain pitifully in place. These arguments are ineffective. Voters have all the power to act.
The death penalty is a remnant of sins against a God, remnant of a theocracy; thus, a peculiar ideal under an American system advocating and otherwise practicing separation of church and state. The death penalty – as used against treason – during times of war through early history held a rational argument for its temporary use. This is because the future of budding democracy – as in colonial America – sovereignty and existence hung in the balance. A single spy, or traitor could crumble the gains and sacrifices of millions. The death penalty, as used during the infancy of pre-industrial civilization had a practical and philosophical argument of a specific deterrence: true “national security” interest.
“… nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” -Amendment 8, U. S. Constitution.
The men who ratified the United States Constitution through the late 18th-Century, after years of war, incorporated the heart of our civil liberties, a special section called the Bill of Rights – the first of the ten amendments in our Constitution. 200-years later, in Furman v. Georgia (1972), the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as was then utilized in Furman’s case was unconstitutionally cruel and arbitrary – contravening the 8th amendment protections. America enjoyed four brief years’ freedom from state-sanctioned killing.
A few years after Furman, 1976, the court revisited the death penalty – again through the State of Georgia. The majority held that the “arbitrary and capricious” elements within the procedure used in Furman’s case, had been remedied, and once again, America began tragically murdering its citizens. Justices Brennan and Marshall, however, believed “capital punishment…inconsistent with contemporary values… ” (Smith, 2009).
This writer wants to believe that.
We are no longer a budding tract of colonies, teetering on extinction.
“To understand criminal justice, it is necessary to understand crime. Most policymaking in criminal justice is based on criminological theory, whether the people making those policies know it or not. In fact, most of the failed policies (what doesn’t work) in criminal justice are due to misinterpretation, partial implementation, or ignorance of criminological theory. Much time and money could be saved if only policymakers had a thorough understanding of criminological theory” –T. O’Connor, in Crime Theories
One of the oft-touted rationalizations for use of the death penalty today, is retribution, which means, in short, that punishments for crime “…must match the gravity of the offense” (Barlow, 1996), and that criminals must be punished. The idea of An eye for an eye, life for a life, a poetic maxim, came down to us through religious ordinances from the Code of Hammurabi. Religious ideology still influences our politics despite rhetoric. In America, most assume we are not forced to believe this way, and in fact, have some sort of say so built-in to our representative form of government, to determine which punishments fit which crimes. Is this true? When has the death penalty (human life) been a relevant enough topic in your life that you interacted with your representatives about it? A majority, while strong in number, does not equate to being more correct than any minority view. And a silent majority is immorally incorrect.
Punishment must, as a utilitarian belief, serve to prevent the majority from suffering crime. In order for deterrence to be effective, so it goes, punishment must particularly be shameful enough, and in some way, debilitating – whether by restricting personal freedoms or through the application of unappealing economic sanctions in order for a malefactor learn her lesson. If we do not attempt to deter crime, we are in a sense accomplices after-the-fact, we are unjust. In a less dramatic fashion, we unapologetically acquiesce to the idea that we value nothing, outside of perhaps anarchy. We cannot let crime go unpunished. Yet, we can be totally and irreversibly smarter!
Torture is illegal , deportation cannot be applied to natural-born citizens, suicide cannot be forced, nor can allegiance to a god or goddess be thrust upon us; however, citizens can yet be killed in some states – as a punishment.
In this writer’s naive opinion, it seems that the death penalty needs to be abolished. There is a tragic, though steady rate of murder that exists in society, and this cannot be remedied by further killing. The idea of deterrence is supposed to work as it does in firefighting, analogous to what is called a firebreak. A firebreak is a line that is burned at some safe distance between the firewall and path of destruction, so that there is nothing to burn or fuel the fire once it reaches this point. That is a figurative use of deterrence, which actually works. For prevention works best. The death penalty will never work. The death penalty has never worked. Social attention to others, and creating “firebreaks” will aid us just the same.
While seemingly cliché, contemporary punishment does not possess the aspect of reparation of the offenders as may be assumed. People who can get released, do so without skills and precious time out of the workforce.
Budgetary excuses aside, the persistent reliance on sensationalist broadcasting has provoked mass fear of a plague of violent crime – which has interestingly gone down across the past handful of decades. Unfortunately, as have rehabilitative efforts.
It’s drug offenders who create most of the “violent crime”, drug offenders have to protect territory, collect debt, fend off robbery, require countless conspiracies just to get to the point to sell, and are the most resistant to new behavior, primarily because money they make from drugs far exceeds any legitimate venture. Thus, how can one repair a value? So, recidivism is high…
• Corrections simply do not pay sufficiently to attract urban elite professionals to work – often in the middle of nowhere. This barrier is built in to the system.
• Local politics ensure that political reps are “hard on crime” such that a single 600+ bed facility can basically subsidize the local economy surrounding the prison. Why rehabilitate that?
• Additionally, programming cannot be implemented because staff-to-prisoner ratios prohibit it, and staff do not have the education for the most part. So, what’s left is an extremely bored criminal left to his own devices and, again in Oklahoma, there were 6-men recently killed across a 3-month span. Death should not be included in any sentences. Doing nothing for them shouldn’t be either.
• Rehabilitation cannot occur in corrections industries programs where prisoners work for pennies supposedly to develop skills for a workforce that largely doesn’t exist – America is a service economy. Additionally, the industries located at medium security facilities use prisoner labor from prisoners who have more than 20-years to complete on their sentences, which means any skills they develop will be useless at age of release and likely obselete. Punishment needs to include all these factors, when it does not have legitimate ends, prisons become arbitrary and capricious and cruel.
Crime is a failure as much as the death penalty is. We must try to first determine criminogenic needs of offenders, so as to cure the ailment(s), the suffering, addressing criminogenic needs during/before punishment. Most all murderers feel guilt from taking another person’s life. And sometimes one becomes a murderer by accident, where the heightened risk of death is imminent, but not obvious such as in a car crash while drunk, or in a felony murder, such as in a botched bank robbery or accident where the victim falls and breaks a neck. Sometimes punishment is, in fact necessary, but the emotion needs to be separated from its application.
The handling of murderers as deviant should not, in my opinion, be the immediate province of the judicial branch of government. The proper form in which murder (and sex crime) should be treated or handled should fall to the psychological or medico-psychiatric community, then judicial. Here again, we will never eradicate murder this way, or even deter murder, as murder is primarily spontaneous. Using this rationale; however, the idea is to study the perpetrators of the crime, repair problems, and allow treatment of the human to prevail, using results to assist countless others. After all, most murderous and all violent crimes (notwithstanding extremely rare serial-murderers/habitual sex-offenders) will never recidivate again – even without such treatment. And, yes, some may not be reached, but this we will know and we can prepare for long-term treatment. Housing mentally-ill with neuro-typical prisoners does create more negative issues and abuses. So this extreme minority cannot be stored in a prison (not simply because most $13-per hour corrections guards lack formal training in how to manage these individuals, but for safety of all stakeholders).
We must consider the idea that by killing citizens, we are throwing away our responsibility to them. In a way, we are trying to ignore the applications of our technological progresses. The M’Naughten Rule which states that an insane person is one that does not know right from wrong, acknowledges that we cannot kill certain individuals because they are incapable of responsible action. If genetic predisposition, is not factored for violence, then what remains are treatable social conditions. Philosopher Colin Wilson, stated that the complexities of civilization led man to develop the independent left brain so that criminality became possible…that violence is a reflection of social tension: “Anyone who has any dealing with criminals, any a policeman, lawyer, psychiatrist will verify that far from being happier than the rest of us, most of them seem to be plagued by a permanent dissatisfaction” (Wilson, 2005: 603).
• Science and research in the socio-medical fields and related social sciences should play a much more integral role in the spectrum of criminal justice, not just in law enforcement, nor in simply determining competence;
• The criminal justice system is in fact too large and cumbersome, organized in such a way as to stifle progressive activities in treatment; offenders should be incarcerated together based on similar offense type, not mixed together; this practice will aid programming needs and affect prisoner sub-cultures by diminishing criminal osmosis and prison politics; Staff within pristine can become specialized to coordinate their education/training to specific populations.
• Psychiatric patients of any kind should never become part of a general population mix. They cannot be held to typical standards. They are easily ignored by directional staff, and taken advantage of by certain opportunistic criminal elements. Yet this is practiced.
• Prosecutorial discretion (as regards plea bargaining) as opposed to sentencing guidelines is a systemic power barrier for egalitarian forms of punishment and access to treatment within reasonable time; Sentencing indeterminately, across the board would work best, placing release powers within institutional committees, those closest to offenders.
• Electing global-thinking officials is also problematic, as perceived peer/public scrutiny interferes with job stability and a career in politics; change will take decades in southern, conservative legislatures.
• The historical utilization of the death penalty is insufficient to perpetuate it; No good is accomplished for anyone in these situations.
• The private, for-profit corporations impede these ends of justice. They are an extremely large and sophisticated lobby. Prisoners are worth roughly $65-per day (far exceeds the cage value of any livestock). What’s $65 x 365? No farmer gets that for any animal.
• Secondary victims can also be asked to assist in playing a pivotal role in treatment. This participation helps the majority of victims, reconcile and adjust.
We should live by positive examples and not submit to the reciprocal killing of our citizens. Regressing toward the perpetrators actions is not the way to deter crime. If we continue to perpetuate the idea that emotional responses should precede a death, we are not at all providing moral foundations. And we condone murder by committing it as a society. We have to take an evolved approach, being more involved with our government, being involved with the criminal, even though she has committed one of the most heinous acts known to us.
The many questions that arise when debating the use of the death penalty will remain with us – and we must always debate themes of civilization, so as to progress considerate of technology or any newer and effective approaches. Relying upon a process that does not work is madness, and is akin to planning to ride a bicycle into space. As Americans we need to give up our bicycle and concentrate on constructing a more conscientious approach to punishment: value of all human life. We must understand that a person in our species who kills another is in need of some assistance, she is hurt, she is suffering, and she needs help. To deny interventions to people, our species, is tantamount to yelling to God that God is imperfect, which is ultimately false. If your ears are closed, read the following words: fix the real problems.
Barlow, Hugh. Introduction to Criminology, 7th ed. Harper NYC. 1996.
Blacks Law Dictionary, 8th ed. M’Naughten Rule.Thompson. St. Paul. 2011.
Cawthorne, Nigel. Public Executions: Ancient Rome to the Present Day. Arcturus. London (2006).
Furman v. Georgia 408 U. S. 238 (1972).
O’Connor, T. (03/26/04). In Crime Theories, MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://faculty.ncwc.edu/toconnor/111/111lect03.htm on January 9, 2006.
Ross, Phil. The US: Which States Still Practice Capital Punishment And What Methods They Use. IBTimes 1/15 /2015 http://www.ibtimes.com/death-penalty-us-which-states-still-practice-capital-punishment-what-methods-they-use-1785124
Smith, Christopher. Criminal Procedure. Wadsworth: CA (2006).
Wilson, Colin. A Criminal History of Mankind. Mercury Books. London: 2005.
United States Constitution, Amendment 8
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