Today there was a lively discussion in the daily chatroom. It started with election issues because I linked Tim O’Reilly’s blog post about why he supports Barack Obama. Someone mentioned the death penalty and the discussion REALLY took off. Here’s my take on the death penalty.
In the Old West, they had public hangings. In biblical times, they had public stoning. In many places, but the deep South in particular, there were lynch mobs. These events were visceral messages to others about what society will not tolerate. If you’ve got that image in your head, you’re less likely to break the law, be it an actual legal document or society’s unwritten rules. Today’s death penalty is not public, so it has very little power as a deterrent.
The other purpose that the death penalty serves is to eliminate individuals who commit unspeakable crimes and demonstrate that they will continue to do so. The example that comes most readily to mind for this is Ted Bundy. The system accomplishes this, but at an enormous financial cost. A death row inmate gets many years and many chances for appeal before they are actually executed, all at taxpayer expense. Unless they live for a REALLY long time, currently it costs less to keep a prisoner for their entire life in regular maximum security prison than it does to execute them.
If we greatly reduce the number of appeals and the amount of time given to a death row inmate, then it would be economically viable. Innocent people do end up on death row occasionally, but the likelihood is low. There should be no reason to let them have so many chances to prove their innocence. If someone is executed and later exonerated, then there is a reason to spend all that public money that would have gone to appeals – as restitution for their family. I’m sure it’ll cost much less than paying it for all of them regardless of actual guilt. Our legal system is based on the principle that true guilt or innocence is impossible to determine, that we have to accept the less perfect opinion of a jury.
The other idea I’ve got for the death penalty is to bring back public executions. Invite the public to watch all executions in large numbers. I’m inclined to say that it should be free, but if you sold tickets, it’s a public revenue opportunity. Either way I think it should be untelevised and personal recording devices banned.
If we as a society are unwilling to implement one or both of these ideas, then the death penalty serves no real purpose and we should eliminate it. If we can’t quickly or publicly eliminate the serial killers, then we should just keep them locked up.
I invite comments. I do not plan to edit or delete them unless they include personal attacks.