Dead Man Walking?

Way back in the day I used to be adamantly against the death penalty. It’s just too uncertain, it dosen’t deter crime any more than life without parole does, it doesn’t protect society anymore than life without parole does, and it certainly dosen’t do anything to help rehabilitate the offenders.

I still sort of feel that way.

However, I’ve started working with Criminal Justice research organizations, and I’ve realized there is a really big incentive for the death penalty. This, of course, is the financial incentive. It costs a heck of a lot less to kill someone than it does to build prisions for them, provide food and clothing for them, and to pay gaurds to watch them.

Now, if that were the only factor, it would still seem to be pretty clear cut. Taxpayers should pay the price for a better society. (This is the liberal in me fighting to see some daylight). Still, there is one more factor that needs to be added in to the equation.

This is the war on drugs. There are those amongst us that advocate in legalizing certain non-life threatening drugs, such as marijuana, to alleviate this war. On the other side, there are those that oppose this, saying it’s the same as a mid-war immediate pullout. Both sides, however, acknowledge that we are fighting an expensive battle which we seem to be losing.

Through my work with sentencing policy, I’ve noticed something interesting. My state sets guidelines for various crimes, depending on the severity of the offense and the history of the offender. Judges don’t have to listen to these guidelines, but they have to provide a reason if they deviate from them.

The problem is, all too often, judges will issue rulings like “10 years in state prison, suspended”. This means, basically, the 10 years goes on the offenders permanent record, and into the statistical information, but the offender actually doesn’t serve any time.

One time, I saw a judge issue a ruling (I think it was for 3 years), with the caveat “beginning when space opens up at jailhouse X”. Lack of space in prisons is a huge problem, and judges work with it by suspending the sentences of their less violent offenders, usually those convicted of drug possession or distribution. I have not yet come across any case where someone was convicted of possession that actually served ANY time. It’s ridiculous. Originally, I blamed the judges, saying they weren’t being hard enough on drug crimes. It’s only been recently that I started to think maybe it’s not just them. Maybe they are just doing the best possible job they can do when prisons are literally filled to capacity.

Ideally, yes, more prisons should be built to solve the space problem. Would it cost tax money? Most definitely yes. Short of that, however, may leave the need to keep criminals out of prison in a different way-a systematic genocide of the most hardened criminals that don’t really stand a chance of getting released any way. But I just can’t advocate for that.