Does Capital Punishment Make For A Sustainable Society?

The Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, published a great piece in the Washington Post yesterday called, “Why I Oppose the Death Penalty” (free subscription needed to access). Contrary to most death penalty pieces, which argue for or against the moral basis of the punishment, this one makes a logical, mostly financial argument in opposition.

Let the record reflect that I’m adamantly opposed to the death penalty as well. I’m sure that if one of my loved ones were killed I’d want the murderer to be stir fried and served over rice to a pack of rabid dogs . . . BUT, I’d also be glad if a civil society were there to smack some sense into me.  End of digression.

O’Malley asks two questions in his editorial:

  1. Is the death penalty a just punishment for murder?
  2. Is the death penalty an effective deterrent to murder?

The debate on the first question has raged for decades. Personally, I don’t think it is a just punishment, but that’s the non-caveman part of me yapping. I agree there are instances where the punishment better reflects the crime committed. Unfortunately, the judgment of when and where varies greatly.

O’Malley cites a few examples of evidence clearing people on death row many years into their sentences. He then asks:

“Notwithstanding the executions of the rightly convicted, can the death penalty ever be justified as public policy when it inherently necessitates the occasional taking of wrongly convicted, innocent life? In Maryland, since 1978, we have executed five people and set one convicted man free when his innocence was discovered. Are any of us willing to sacrifice a member of our own family — wrongly convicted, sentenced and executed — in order to secure the execution of five rightly convicted murders? And even if we were, could that public policy be called “just”? I do not believe it can.

I found this argument rather compelling and unique relative to most of what I’ve read on the issue.  O’Malley then states:

In 2005, the murder rate was 46 percent higher in states that had the death penalty than in states without it — although they had been about the same in 1990. And while the murder rate has gone down across the board since 1990, it declined by 56 percent in states without the death penalty but only 38 percent in states that have it. It would appear that the death penalty is not a deterrent, but possibly an accelerant, to murder.

The good governor assumes a bit too much in thinking the death penalty has a causal link to murder rates, but the stats are interesting nonetheless. I think a better explanation is that states with the death penalty are generally the least progressive states in the country. That being said, these states are also stereotypically the ones with the weakest tax base and the weakest social infrastructure in relation to education, healthcare and crime deterrence. When it rains it pours is more likely an explanation of O’Malley’s findings than anything else.

The arguments presented in the article thus far are more philosophical in nature. What follows is what O’Malley said to grab my attention:

And what of the tremendous cost of pursuing capital punishment? In 2002, Judge Dale Cathell of the Maryland Court of Appeals wrote that, according to his research, processing and imprisoning a death penalty defendant “costs $400,000 over and above . . . a prisoner serving a life sentence.” Given that 56 people have been sentenced to death in Maryland since 1978, our state has spent about $22.4 million more than the cost of life imprisonment. That’s nearly $4.5 million “extra” for each of the five executions carried out. And so long as every American is presumed innocent until proven guilty, the cost of due process will not go down.

If, however, we were to replace the death penalty with life without parole, that $22.4 million could pay for 500 additional police officers or provide drug treatment for 10,000 of our addicted neighbors. Unlike the death penalty, these are investments that save lives and prevent violent crime. If we knew we could spare a member of our family from becoming a victim of violent crime by making this policy change, would we do it?

The aforementioned facts are what should appeal to the fiscally conscious government official or voter. It is this basic cost/benefit analysis that should leave any educated individual questioning why the death penalty exists. Set aside for a moment the immense irony in the beliefs of those who oppose stem cell research and abortion but support the death penalty and you will find that money nearly always eventually trumps any moral or religious objection or support of an issue. For better or worse, the dollar makes the world go ’round. In this case money makes a very compelling argument. O’Malley waxes philosophical at the end of his piece and says:

Human dignity is the concept that leads brave individuals to sacrifice their lives for the lives of strangers. Human dignity is the universal truth that is the basis of ethics. Human dignity is the fundamental belief on which the laws of this state and this republic are founded. And absent a deterrent value, the damage done to the concept of human dignity by our conscious communal use of the death penalty is greater than the benefit of even a justly drawn retribution.

Most developed nations have abolished the death penalty and it is time for us to do the same. With it, a civil society is less sustainable in the long run. Without it, we have a chance as a people to become better tomorrow than we are today.

3 comments

  1. Pingback: hell’s handmaiden » Blog Archive » The Carnival of the Godless #61: Things God Wants
  2. soph

    i think that capital punishment is totally wrong we cant play god so stop being stupid der brains ‘we kill people who kill people to show killin people is wrong’ we should be killed as we are just as bad as we are killing over people. so dont bring it bck silly billys

  3. M Feruje

    Ignorance of law can not be used as a defence in law.Being a member of civil society we should know the consequence of any act we do.If we do a crime we have to suffer.We should have faith upon the administration of justice,so capital punishment is requiered for the society to ensure justice.I dont wanna see a killer coming out of jail with a smile unless he is sick,even if he sick let him live in the hospital not in the socity to committ the same crime.

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