Friday, August 7, 2015

The Death Penalty & Life Without Parole

This isn't a book review; it really is about the death penalty and the sentence of 'life without the possibility of parole' (LWOP). I'm writing this, KNOWING that some of my dearest friends are going to think I've betrayed them, and some people I despise are going to think I've joined their camp on other issues as well. Sorry about that, y'all; I'm just not solidly in any political camp. When I was a very young (and stupid and ignorant) man, I proclaimed myself to be a liberal; as I grew older, I became more conservative; in the past ten years or so, I find I'm often inclined to the libertarian perspective.
For those who want to look at some of the foundation for my decision, I'll provide some links, but I'm not going to stick references everywhere in the text, unless I cite a particularly significant point. Almost all of those are going to come in one section of this post, and if you are hooked, will provide you with further reading.

So: let me get to the conclusion right up front, and then explain it.

1. I am no longer in favor of the death penalty, and
2. I am not in favor of sentencing someone to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

This is not a position I take in reaction to something personal:
1.  No one I know personally is a victim of a crime calling for the death penalty, and
2. No one I know is the victim of a crime calling for LWOP. Furthermore,
3. No one I know personally is the recipient of either of those two sentences.
I developed this position free of the kind of emotional onslaught that doubtlessly fills those who have been impacted by crime. That does not mean my position is free of emotional bias, just that it's not primarily based on emotion. My thinking processes, both rational and irrational, (and I'll define that in a minute), both lead me to this conclusion.


Let me get to the irrational thinking first: (This is, I believe, a position that comes from my libertarian side. I'm labelling it 'irrational thinking' because I realize my thinking is affected by anger. That doesn't mean it's wrong, but I probably wouldn't have gotten here if I hadn't gotten mad first.)
I no longer have enough trust in the state to grant it the power to impose the death penalty against someone convicted of criminal behavior. I lost that trust when I realized that sometimes innocent people are convicted of a capital offense, and that sometimes a guilty person is given an undeserved death penalty. Both of these are failures of some aspect of the state-imposed system. To be specific, I believe that sometimes cops lie, that prosecutors sometimes are more interested in a conviction than justice, that sometimes juries can be wrong, and that sometimes judges are incompetent. I definitely do NOT believe that's the case MOST of the time. But, sometimes the wrong thing happens because someone has bad motives, and sometimes the wrong thing happens by accident. When a death sentence is carried out, the wrong thing can't get fixed. That's important enough to repeat : when a innocent person is put to death, the state cannot reverse the wrong done.

And now for the rational thinking.  (This comes from my conservative side, and is based on facts and reasoning. )
The death penalty is too expensive, in both time and money. This where I have to provide a supporting link. Death penalty trials take longer, and appeals take forever, it seems, and every bit of that is on the taxpayers' dime. Consider trial costs: in every case where the death penalty is sought, special rules apply to evidence and legal procedures, and those rules result in a longer, more expensive trial than a trial involving a life sentence.  A 2014 study in Kansas shows that the taxpayer paid average defense and court costs in excess of of $467,000 for death penalty trials, compared to an average of  $120,000 for life sentence cases.
The costs of appeals for a death penalty case vs a life sentence case are more difficult to determine. However, an Idaho report states that public defenders billed an average of 7,918 hours for death penalty cases, compared to 179 hours per client with life sentences.
An additional cost borne by the taxpayer is the cost of death row housing vs housing in the general population. Figures vary, but it's clear that it costs more to house death row convicts. A California report  says it costs (in 2008) $90,000 more per year to house death row inmates; the Kansas report cited earlier says (in 2014) the additional taxpayer burden is more in the neighborhood of $25,000 per year.
If the death penalty were off the table, costs for trials, appeals, and housing would all decrease immediately and precipitously, and that's money which could be used much more effectively elsewhere.
Another cost of the death penalty, which can't be measured.  Every death penalty case has a victim, and victims have families. While the trials and appeals are going on, the families do not have resolution; they are, in effect, hostages of the criminal justice system. Some victims state that they can only receive closure by the execution of the condemned. So how are we doing with that? Since 1965, the execution rate of condemned criminals has never reached 3%, and since 1994 the average time between conviction and execution has never been less than 10 years. You may have a different opinion on this matter than I do, but this system is not providing closure to family members.

So, there you have it.  That's my stance against the death penalty, based on my libertarian and conservative beliefs. There's not a bit of whiney, liberal, sissy, value-of-human-life garbage anywhere.
To get that, you have to turn to my much shorter analysis, which is nothing BUT value-of-human-life garbage :


I need to make this point first: there are some people who I cannot imagine EVER deserving release from prison. These are people who I think must be locked up because of the damage they have already done to our society, as well the potential for damage should they be released. I'm not arguing that some people should not be in prison forever; I'm arguing against the sentence itself. The decision to parole an individual  needs to be made by parole boards; those are composed of experienced corrections and enforcement officers, and others with significant relevant experience. A state legislature is NOT the appropriate place to determine parole status for an individual, but that's what LWOP means.

Note: when I set about to write this post, I had two reasons for opposing LWOP. However, as a result of the research I have done, I have dumped the second reason, and totally re-written the first. Here's what's left:

For the prisoner, a sentence of LWOP removes hope, the most significant agent for change. They have no expectation that their life will ever change in a meaningful way, no matter what they do. There are small, but significant. privileges that prisoners can earn by good behavior, and generally, lifers earn and keep those privileges. However, after years and decades go by with no prospect of ever going free, motivation to preserve a healthy attitude disintegrates. For some, a spiritual transformation takes place, and they develop a new purpose in working with other prisoners. This transformation is described by Victor Frankl, based on his experience as a Holocaust survivor, in 'Man's Search for Meaning,' and is central to Christianity as well as other spiritual disciplines. I cannot, in good conscience, deny to those who have had such a robust reconfiguration of their very lives, even a hope of release. That, in a nutshell, is the sum of my opposition to LWOP.

I mentioned I started with two reasons, and abandoned the second. The second reason I had for opposing LWOP was that it endangered prison officials, who would have to work with inmates already given the maximum sanction, who could resist the prison system with impunity. This turns out not to be the case. In fact, studies show that inmates with a death sentence and inmates with LWOP have both have much lower incidences of infractions than parole-eligible inmates, those with much shorter sentences. I thus discarded 'threats to staff' as a reason to oppose LWOP.

As I said earlier, I believe there are some prisoners who should NEVER be allowed to prey on civilization again. For them, a sentence of life is just that: life. Their cases will still come up for review, and the parole board continues to deny parole, every time. State Parole Boards only view appeals for parole after a minimum sentence is completed (15 years, for example, in a sentence of 15 years to life), and then only 10-15 % of the cases are approved. Parole boards are composed of former corrections and enforcement officials, and of elected officials with an extensive background in corrections law and administration. That's where the expertise lies, and that's where the decisions should be made about who is eligible for parole, not in the legislature.

As I review what I've written, I see I haven't done the topic justice. My thinking is clearer than my writing, but my thinking mixes both the emotional and the factual reasoning into one thread, and that just doesn't transfer on to the page. Part of me wants to sift every word, and make this perfect. However, I've been struggling with this for at least a week now, and the topic is oppressive. I find myself dreaming that I'm a lifer, and frankly, that's beyond the the contribution I wish to make to my craft. It's eaten at me in a way no other blog post has, and maybe that's just the cost of doing business. However, unlike the lifer, I have other business to do, and so I close this out, in the hope I may have persuaded some.

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