Big news is that both lefty and righty Catholic news sources banded together last week to issue an editorial “Capital Punishment Must End“.
The subject is enormous; there is no hope of covering every facet in this article. All I want to do here is dismantle a couple of bad arguments used by death penalty opponents. Because the following arguments are shown to be poor is not, of course, proof or justification for the death penalty. One must never embrace bad arguments simply because their conclusions are comforting. For additional details, see Ed Feser’s “Capital punishment should not end” (Feser also has a book on this subject in the works).
Update Via emails I have received, and from some of the comments below, it appears people did not read the paragraph above this one. And they probably haven’t read Feser either.
Update 2 If you haven’t already, go to Feser’s place and see the more compete set of links to articles critical of the joint editorial.
Deterrence & Prevention
Leave aside the question whether deterrence is the or a purpose of punishment (there are good arguments it is not). Opponents claim capital punishment does not deter. “‘Society can protect itself in ways other than the use of the death penalty,’ Cardinal O’Malley said.”
Threats of punishment deter. If they did not, then why don’t you rob your local bank? To argue the death penalty does not deter is to claim to have evidence which asserts authoritatively that deterrence peaks at some level of punishment shy of death. No such evidence exists.
Instead, complicated statistical surveys are conducted, with most usually forgetting that models can’t ascribe causes—or lack of causes. Raw numbers sometimes can.
The National Institute of Justice maintains statistics on recidivism rates. Assume the death penalty for murder convictions is meted out. Convicted murderers would then not be able to kill again; nor could they commit other crimes. This is one form of deterrence; rather, of prevention.
As it is now, most murders are not executed; most are released after serving prison terms. Some murders commit other crimes, including murder, in prison and in society upon release. Death penalty opponents are often deaf to the harm criminals can inflect while incarcerated.
According to the NIJ (Table 8), about half of murderers (obviously not executed!) released from prison are arrested again after 5 years (for any crime). The numbers are slightly higher for those convicted of manslaughter, another crime sometimes thought eligible for capital punishment. About 1% (Table 9) of released prisoners are arrested within 5 years for homicide. About (Table 10) one-third of those arrested for any violent crime are re-arrested within 5 years for another violent crime. It’s not clear from their tables exactly how many released murders commit new murders, but it’s surely greater than 0.
Thus we can say that some murderers will kill again, crimes which could have been deterred (prevented!) were the death penalty for murder in place. Of course, this argument also applies to non-criminals! Execute all and there is no crime. Which only proves we must look outside the numbers for assessing the morality of capital punishment. But we can not claim the death penalty does not deter or prevent crime. We can only argue about the level of deterrence and prevention.
Opponents say capital punishment costs money. “It is also insanely expensive, as court battles soak up resources better deployed in preventing crime in the first place and working toward restorative justice for those who commit less heinous crimes.”
This is a shockingly poor argument. Would opponents switch sides were capital punishment free? Obviously not. Indeed, this argument works against opponents because at least one purpose of punishment, if not the purpose, is retribution. That capital trials take inordinate time and money is because we as a society can’t make up our mind about it. It’s tough to claim retribution as trials drag out over years, even decades.
The term “restorative justice” has the stink of political correctness about it. According to an eponymous website it “is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behaviour. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders.” Use of word “theory” sends further shivers down my spine.
Anyway, a murdered person cannot be repaired and can’t cooperate in “processes.”
“Advocates of the death penalty often claim that it brings closure to a victim’s family. But advocates who walk with the families of victims, like Mercy Sister Camille D’Arienzo, tell a different story.”
Any argument that includes the word “closure” fails automatically. A family member can feel that retribution has taken place while still taking pity on the murderer and while still feeling sadness at their loss.
Advocates who walk with the families of victims? Spare me.
“Archbishop Chaput reminds us that when considering the death penalty we cannot forget that it is we, acting through our government, who are the moral agents in an execution. The prisoner has committed his crime and has answered for it in this life, just as he shall answer for it before God. But it is the government, acting in our name, that orders and perpetrates lethal injection. It is we who add to, instead of heal, the violence.”
Shorter version: Under capital punishment, the State executes the criminal.
Archbishop Chaput’s argument is not one. The question before us is whether capital punishment is justified given capital punishment is, well, capital.
Faulty Methods Of Execution
“Last April, the drug protocol failed in the execution of Clayton Lockett. Lockett moaned in pain before authorities suspended the execution; he would die of a heart attack later that night.”
This anecdote could equally well be used to argue for surer methods of execution. Did we hear firing squads were making a comeback? Pondering the question of a quick execution is what, incidentally, led Dr Guillotine to his solution.
Update: Inability to choose new restaurants
To those who suggest that capital punishment is a proper justice, and that one who has taken the life of another has no right to his own, or her own, let us consider a life lived in captivity, where, — because of one’s actions — one’s choices are forever limited; where simple human freedoms no longer exist for you. You cannot decide to take a walk at midnight, or plan a menu and entertain guests, or try a new restaurant, or rustle up some scrambled eggs, or go fishing, or sleep in, or lay on the grass with a good book, or dandle a baby, or watch a parade, or travel to Rome, or rearrange furniture, or retire to someplace quiet. The loss of simple human options like these is the loss of much of the richness of life; to most of us, it would feel like deserved but heavy justice, indeed.
I suppose travel to China for the incarcerated is out, too. Anyway, Scalia has forgotten that those executed will also not be trying new restaurants nor rustling up scrambled eggs nor dandling (I hope this is a good thing) babies nor doing much of anything else involving their corporeal selves. Is Scalia taking delight in musing on the suffering of prisoners for life? Is she imagining needling lifers by sending them travel brochures?
See this essay by Fr Rutler based on Dr Johnson’s well known and most apt quip, “The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully.”