I was recently asked by a commenter what I thought was a "fair" sentence for someone convicted of killing another.
The gentleman seemed to believe that the death penalty was appropriate - at least in that particular case. I won't put words in his mouth and assume that he supports the death penalty across the board.
I don't know the answer to his question.
I do know, as I have pointed out before, that killing a murderer doesn't bring any of the victims back to life. Killing him doesn't heal the wounds his actions caused. I also don't think it does anything to bring closure to the family and friends of his victim. The wounds will always be there - they just fade in and out in various degrees as time moves on.
There are three understood purposes of punishment in our criminal (in)justice system. The first is rehabilitation. Our penitentiary system owes much of its existence to religious sects who felt the best way to treat someone convicted of criminal activity was to remove him from the bad influences in his life and teach him another way to live. That's why most of our prisons are far removed from the "evil" influence of our major cities (in much the same way that most of our large land grant colleges are far removed from urban areas).
A second purpose is to deter others from breaking the law. If you see your buddy sent off to prison for breaking the law, maybe the message will hit home that it's best to obey the law. This, of course, only works for those folks who are able to weigh the costs and benefits of particular actions before deciding what to do.
The third purpose was to banish from civil society those who were blatant in their rule-breaking and expressed no remorse for their actions. One way to look at it is the folks we choose to banish from society are those folks that we're scared of.
I think it's a fairly safe bet to assume that our prisons long ago stopped serving any rehabilitative function. They have become warehouses for the mentally ill, drug addicts and folks who refuse to conform with the rules of civil society. We could add that prisons today are used as tools of social control to keep the poor and minorities from exercising any power.
Now our politicians and supporters of the death penalty will hang their hats on deterrence as being the reason we strap inmates to a gurney and murder them in cold blood. The idea is that the public sees what happens when you kill someone (well, kill someone whose life we've determined is more valuable than someone else's) and folks make a conscious decision not to do the same.
The only problem with that logic is that most murders aren't the act of rational actors. How many times is the victim of a murder an acquaintance of the murderer? How many times is the murder the result of an argument that two friends (or two relatives) had over a pool game or a bet or a small loan? How many times do we see someone killing their spouse or lover? Then you've got drug-related killings and "robberies gone bad."
We've been killing inmates for generations and we still have people killing people. The death penalty never has been, and never will be, a deterrent.
The death penalty is about nothing more than revenge. Always has been and always will be. As such it serves no useful purpose within a criminal justice system.
Furthermore, the death penalty is forever. Once you've killed an inmate, they aren't coming back. It doesn't matter whether they were guilty or innocent. Just think about that for a bit. Over the past decade we have witnessed an incredible number of stories of inmates who spent decades in prison being exonerated when DNA evidence revealed the jury got it wrong.
Our system is run by people. We're fallible. We all get it wrong every now and then. Michael Morton was convicted of killing his wife. The district attorney hid evidence and his successor fought like hell to keep the evidence from being tested because he knew what it would reveal.
Innocent people have been murdered by the state. As long as we continue to strap inmates down and inject poison into their veins we will run the risk of another innocent man being killed. Is that a chance you feel comfortable taking?
I have no use for religion. I think it's nothing but a tool of oppression. But I'm not arrogant enough to say that I know who should live and who should die.