I used to be a pretty staunch defender of the death penalty, but I’m not any more.
There are three general motivations behind our sentencing of convicted criminals. There’s the notion that other criminals will be deterred from committing that crime once they know the consequences, or, at least, the one who has suffered the consequences will not be tempted to do it again. Then there’s the notion that the criminal justice system can rehabilitate a criminal and teach them to be an upstanding citizen once released. And then there’s the idea of simple retribution, that the sentence is simply a punishment for having done wrong.
The deterrence argument just doesn’t fit within the facts of reality. According to the National Institute, punishments do little to deter crime.
The rehabilitation argument is infinitely more complex because there is an infinity of possible options to consider when coming up with ways to teach criminals not to be criminals. My objection to this is that this is not only very, very expensive, but is not guaranteed to produce the desired results. I also have concerns that criminals sentenced to some sort of rehabilitation program may find themselves subject to state scrutiny for the rest of their lives, making it impossible to actually fulfill your sentence. And, finally, I am unnerved by the idea of charging the state with the responsibility to “fix people.”
The idea that a sentence should be punishment alone is the only argument that really satisfies me. I tend to think that criminals should be punished and then be allowed to go back about their lives as well as they can. This approach is not without its own challenges and tricky philosophical questions, but I’ll spare you because this post is already too long. Suffice it to say that I think there are some crimes where death is the correct punishment.
So, my relatively recent objection to the death penalty has nothing to do with the question of whether it’s cruel or anything. I have two, related objections to the death penalty:
- Our criminal justice system has far, far too many examples of wrongly convicted people in it.
- The standard of proof that we accept for putting someone to death is far too light.
I don’t expect any system of justice run by humans to be perfect. There will always be mistakes even among the most well-informed, most thoughtful, most well-intentioned people. We just don’t know everything and we do not always reason perfectly. But prosecuting innocent people is deeply offensive to even the most basic sense of justice. And I find the notion of killing an innocent person utterly intolerable.
And our justice system punishes innocent people in error allllllllllll the time. An absolutely shocking amount of time. And then we do very little (anything?) to compensate people who were wrongly convicted. Some people have had their lives absolutely destroyed because they spent ten years in jail right before they would have been starting their careers and when they get out folks like like, “Oopsie! My bad.”
That’s terrible enough, but to actually kill someone in error? No, thanks.
If that doesn’t get you worked up, add to that the number of people wrongly convicted because the jury, the judge, the police, whoever was racist or otherwise bigoted. RAAAAAAAAAGE.
The standard of proof that we ask jurors to follow is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But folks may be surprised to learn that there are other standards of proof and in our legal system we sometimes use different ones. For example, Wikipedia tells me that the lightest standard is “some evidence.” You may also have heard of “probable cause” and “preponderance of the evidence.” Different standards are used in different circumstances. Not all of them can be used for criminal convictions, for instance. I’m not a lawyer and don’t take anything I say here or elsewhere as legal advice.
The highest standard that we actually use is the “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but there are higher standards that could be used. One debatable standard that could be used is “beyond any residual doubt.” Again, not a lawyer, but this standard is, in my mind, roughly equal to “absolute certainty.” (Residual doubt is a thing in our legal system and there was a Supreme Court ruling about when it could be introduced, yadda yadda. Google it.)
I just don’t think we should kill anyone unless we are absolutely certain they deserve to be killed. I don’t mean that we have strong emotions about them. I mean that if we’re going to put someone to death, then we need to have the strongest evidence possible that they did it.
That would probably mean that a lot fewer people get sentenced to death and I’m fine with that. It would also mean that a lot fewer innocent people would get sentenced to death.
So, until we improve our justice system to a point where we can have some confidence that we’re not killing innocent people, we should stop killing people as punishment for crimes.
PHOTO CREDIT: Featured photo by izhar khan from Pexels