On the Death Penalty: A Question of Objectives
Jan 19, 2011

On the Death Penalty: A Question of Objectives

In Canada, the question of the death penalty is largely a politically resolved issue as indicated by Harper's acknowledgement in a recent Mansbridge interview that he has no plans to act on his supportive stance for the death penalty. However, the question of the death penalty - while interesting in itself - can be framed in a way that is illustrative to several other issues and is therefore a useful illustration.

To answer the question of whether we should support the death penalty we must first identify what our objectives are in the penal system at large. In my view the goals are two fold. Firstly, we aim to prevent reoccurrence of crime by people likely to recommit. A rapist is considerably more likely to commit another rape and hence prison prevents that. Secondly, and more importantly, prison acts as a deterrent for people committing criminal acts. It is the threat of prison that inhibits many criminal actions. The interesting thing about this second goal is that what is being accomplished has nothing to do with a specific criminal who is bring imprisoned, it is about the larger social order and preventing people other than those actually imprisoned from committing crime.

What is deliberately absent is a punitive goal. Punishment for punishments sake, imprisoning people because they "deserve" it, is not in my view a goal of the penal system. The goals I outlined have a clearly definable social utility that benefits society. Punitive actions for the sake of "justice", opposed to social utility, serve no clear purpose.

If one accepts my framing, it is fairly easy to establish that the death penalty does not hold in this context. Life long imprisonment equally prevents reoccurrence to killing the person. Less trivially, as can be seen by numerous comparison studies of jurisdictions with and without the death penalty, having the death penalty does not make a measurable decrease in the types of crimes deserving of the death penalty. This is intuitively reasonable as for these types of crimes - such as the recent killing spree by Jared Loughner - the  criminals are not doing a sufficient cost benefit analysis that can tell the difference between life in prison and death. The punishment is so bad in either case that they are willing to do it regardless. We thus do not get an advantage on either condition. All that remains is the punitive goal.

I am less sympathetic to some of the other arguments against the death penalty given along the lines of noting the potential of killing an innocent man or that killing of all kinds is categorically wrong. For the former concern, this remains true for the still bad punishment of life in prison which, while problematic, isn't sensitive to the difference between the two. If the innocent issue it is an argument against the death penalty it must be an argument against the still bad life imprisonment. There is, however, an important asymmetry between the two namely that if later evidence comes up that proves innocence, the incarcerated person can be released but the killed person can not. Particularly with the advent of DNA evidence, this was far too common. As for the latter concern, if it was true that killing a small number of criminals drastically reduced the death rate because of this deterrent this criticism would fall as one can see an aggregate saving of lives. It is because this it is not true that it works as a deterrent that the death penalty fails, not because killing is a priori bad.

This general framing of actions based on their social utility and not on their punitive nature is often not clearly understood. It is common for people to emphasize how people "deserve" what they get or ought to get. This applies to everything from illegal immigrants to pot smokers to invading countries like Afghanistan. The question should never be whether they deserve it, it should be whether there is a net social benefit.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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DjittyDitty said...

I am not convinced that the death penalty is a deterrent, any more than I am convinced that by raising detention times for certain crimes will reduce the incidence of that crime.

The commission of such crimes does not generally happen within the rational realm of the mind and so there is no possibility of weighing up the options - "If I hit him on the head with a baseball bat I will get 15 years, but if I shoot him dead I will get life."

We do have to lock some criminals up, but generally the only plausible reason is to protect society from the possibility of a recurrence of a similar crime at their hands.

bazie said...

Ya I agree. I do think prison is a deterrent in general (people don't, say, steal something for fear of getting caught and going to prison) but that the difference between death penalty and life in prison is not a deterrent. Your example illustrates perfectly why this difference doesn't matter.

This actually applies to much smaller crimes, like Harper's attempts to increase sentences for minor crimes. I think prison in general acts as a deterrent, but I am not convinced the longer sentences increase that deterrent in a measurable way.

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