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New Jersey abolishes the death penalty
December 13, 2007 2:18 PM   Subscribe

New Jersey abolishes the death penalty. Just one step in a long nationwide move away from capital punishment. Now, New Jersey hasn't actually executed anyone since it first instated its death penalty - but this move is hardly symbolic, as the state has spent about a quarter billion dollars on its death penalty, revealing a counterintuitive fact: the death penalty is far more expensive than life without parole.
posted by parmanparman (81 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by dead_ at 2:22 PM on December 13, 2007


Wait, I really fucked that one up. At least it's eponysterical, right?

(But no really, this is good)
posted by dead_ at 2:23 PM on December 13, 2007


I'm not snarking, but I was under the impression that the death penalty's costing far more than life without parole was fairly common knowledge.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:23 PM on December 13, 2007


shakespeherian, these days nothing is common knowledge.

Well, nothing important.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:30 PM on December 13, 2007


About time.

I miss NJ.
posted by ShawnStruck at 2:30 PM on December 13, 2007


Afraid not. At least in my experience, people often use "the cost of keeping people in jail their whole lives" is a major sticking point.

Of course, in my experience people select facts based on preconceptions and not vice versa.
posted by absalom at 2:31 PM on December 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


I think the death penalty really comes down to honest disagreement between how to accomplish the twin aims of incarceration, that is, punishment and rehabilitation. At a certain threshold, which our society has determined is murder plus aggrevating circumstances, the desire to rehabilitate is completely swamped by the desire to punish. How we bring to effect to "ultimate" punishment, so to speak, is at the heart of the debate. Can anyone really say, with conviction, that no act deserves death? And, conversely, can anyone really say that one heinous act deserves another?
posted by gagglezoomer at 2:31 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yay, New Jersey! Nice to hear about some sanity and common sense for a change. The death penalty really just comes down to revenge. It doesn't prevent crime, it doesn't bring the victims back from the dead and it doesn't even save money. All it does is satisfy blood lust. Well, and allow politicians to pander to the lowest common denominator.
posted by octothorpe at 2:32 PM on December 13, 2007


The better news would be when the entire country abolishes this disgusting practice.
posted by knapah at 2:35 PM on December 13, 2007


Afraid not. At least in my experience, people often use "the cost of keeping people in jail their whole lives" is a major sticking point.

On further consideration I suppose I haven't talked with any pro-death penalty people about it for a very long time, so my impressions of the general populace are worthless.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:38 PM on December 13, 2007


Reading the paper this week there was an article about some guy (here in Cali) in for life who died of illness on the anniversary of his crime. The relatives of the dead girl were quite happy about that.

I can't judge them on that.

Questions about cost-effectiveness are moot. It'd been more cost-effective to live under the Nazis, or have 35MPH speed limits on the freeways.

The main philosophical difficulty, that we all should share, with the death penalty is just getting the wrong guy. At least with life, the mistake can be rectified to some extent.
posted by panamax at 2:38 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


oh, my solution to the wrong-guy problem is charging the judge, jury, and/or prosecution with manslaughter should sufficient evidence come out about potential innocence.
posted by panamax at 2:40 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Questions about cost-effectiveness are moot. It'd been more cost-effective to live under the Nazis, or have 35MPH speed limits on the freeways.

You are right that questions about cost-effectiveness should be moot, but unfortunately the supposed greater cost efficiency of death sentences does get trotted out again and again. A friend of mine is very pro-death penalty (in Canada, ha!) and will use the argument "I don't want my tax dollars paying for a criminal to have a life-long stay in what amounts to a private resort, just kill them and save us all money." I argue tooth-and-nail against her, but she really believes this.
posted by arcticwoman at 2:46 PM on December 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Welcome to the 21st century New Jersey. It's good to have you.
posted by slimepuppy at 3:00 PM on December 13, 2007


Good for them. Though, as always, I'm of two minds on the subject: I used to be completely pro-death penalty, I just felt that there were some crimes that people deserved to die for.

Then, I started hearing more and more examples of people who had been on death row for years, who were finally being acquitted based on new evidence. Innocent people who, had the evidence not come forward, would have been killed for no good reason.

It was because of this, that last time it came up in Wisconsin, I really thought about it before I realized that I just couldn't abide a penalty that had the least chance of being used unjustly, and I finally voted against it.

Still, I find myself wishing for a punishment that truly matched some of the horrific crimes that people commit against one another.

My best solution so far is permanent solitary confinement. Where if you are found guilty, you will never see or speak to another human being again. You will live in a bare room, be fed through a double blind slot, and be sedated to unconsciousness once a month to have a doctor examine you, and have your hair and nails cut.

Though I sometimes wonder if something like this would actually be crueler than the capital punishment it replaces.
posted by quin at 3:01 PM on December 13, 2007


oh, my solution to the wrong-guy problem is charging the judge, jury, and/or prosecution with manslaughter should sufficient evidence come out about potential innocence.

I suppose every jury after that would be a hung jury, which seems appropriate.
posted by cairnish at 3:03 PM on December 13, 2007


quin writes "My best solution so far is permanent solitary confinement. Where if you are found guilty, you will never see or speak to another human being again. You will live in a bare room, be fed through a double blind slot, and be sedated to unconsciousness once a month to have a doctor examine you, and have your hair and nails cut. "

You do realize this is more cruel than just killing someone, don't you? Solitary confinement causes some pretty horrendous psychological trauma.
posted by mullingitover at 3:12 PM on December 13, 2007 [5 favorites]


My best solution so far is permanent solitary confinement. Where if you are found guilty, you will never see or speak to another human being again. You will live in a bare room, be fed through a double blind slot, and be sedated to unconsciousness once a month to have a doctor examine you, and have your hair and nails cut.

Uhhhh....yeeeaaaahhhh. That would be "cruel and unusual," so no.
posted by agregoli at 3:13 PM on December 13, 2007


Hooray. And you can spew out all the pros and cons you want. Killing people is wrong in any context. Period. End of argument.
posted by wfc123 at 3:18 PM on December 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


wfc123: Killing people is wrong in any context. Period. End of argument.

I'm pretty sure the argument doesn't end here.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 3:22 PM on December 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


I think it's perfectly acceptable to kill in self-defense, or in the immediate defense of life/limb. You can even justify going to war (against a belligerent) under that standard. The death penalty, however, is by definition killing someone who's already been neutralised.

We fucked up when we gave the state the power to murder.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:26 PM on December 13, 2007 [10 favorites]


You do realize this is more cruel than just killing someone, don't you? Solitary confinement causes some pretty horrendous psychological trauma.

Hence my next line:

Though I sometimes wonder if something like this would actually be crueler than the capital punishment it replaces.

Yeah, it's insanely cruel. But the idea came to me when I was reading one of those guy-rapes-infant kind of stories and my mind just went away. My point is that while I've become anti-death penalty, I still think there are crimes that warrant something worse than just prision.

Lifelong solitary was the worst, non-straight up torture that I could come up with. And even then, it's evil beyond what I think would really be appropriate. (except on my really dark days, that is.)
posted by quin at 3:30 PM on December 13, 2007


And really, if you're looking for a way to get rid of capital punishment while still having some means of removing people on a permanent basis from society, life without parole has the option to release the innocent.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:31 PM on December 13, 2007


Good on you, Jersey.

Still, I find myself wishing for a punishment that truly matched some of the horrific crimes that people commit against one another.

I dunno -- even granting (solely) for the sake of argument that this is an ethical aim, that goal of equivalence, of trying to make a perpetrator suffer the same amount or in the same way as the victim, or understand the profound suffering of others, is probably a pipe dream. Not that really violent perpetrators of horrific crimes can't or don't suffer; in fact, a good many of them are probably narcissistically obsessed with their own "plights," to the exclusion of anyone else. But the worst, most aberrant (but sane) offenders, the very ones who make the public clamor for execution, are so broken or twisted or empty that what strikes a regular person as hugely punitive wouldn't even make a dent. You can kill these people, or confine, isolate and study them, but that's about it. [Thus spake the modern jackass.]

I dunno, maybe I just don't have a normal amount of vengefulness, which I think is a normal thing, but I can find a person like, say, Ted Bundy, abhorrent, despicable and terrifying and simultaneously wish, without any effort, to be more merciful to him (which is not the same thing as feeling sympathy or being on the perpetrator's "side.") than he would surely have been to me, especially 20 years ago when I had long brown hair.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:31 PM on December 13, 2007


The only way the death penalty ever made an iota of sense to me was as a way for society to say "Well, we don't ever have to worry about that fucker again, no matter what." As a punishment or a deterrent it just doesn't really hold water. Even so, the "removal from society" angle was never really enough of a reason to me to justify its existence. Congratulations, New Jersey.
posted by LionIndex at 3:33 PM on December 13, 2007


Then, I started hearing more and more examples of people who had been on death row for years, who were finally being acquitted based on new evidence. Innocent people who, had the evidence not come forward, would have been killed for no good reason.

This is the part that baffles me the most. Everyone I've ever met who's pro-death-penalty thinks the state is competent enough to make decisions about capital punishment, but doesn't want to pay a cent in taxes because they're positive that the government will just waste the money. (Like, say, NJ did on the capital-punishment rule they never used.)
posted by spiderwire at 3:39 PM on December 13, 2007 [10 favorites]



My best solution so far is permanent solitary confinement.


That will be the infamous 'No Human Contact' then...
'Silverstein claims that "no human contact” status is essentially a form of torture reserved for those who kill correctional officers. "When an inmate kills a guard, he must be punished," a Bureau of Prisoners official told author Pete Earley. "We can’t execute Silverstein, so we have no choice but to make his life a living hell. Otherwise other inmates will kill guards too. There has to be some supreme punishment. Every convict knows what Silverstein is going through. We want them to realize that if they cross the same line that he did, they will pay a heavy price."'

My emphasis.

I've actually not heard of the 'too expensive' argument before...

One of the things about my country I'm proud of is we got rid of the death penalty some time ago.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:42 PM on December 13, 2007


It's not like we should care about justice or anything.
posted by Autarky at 3:43 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Right on, Garden State.

I read about the horrible things that people do to each other, things that make my hackles of vengeance rise, and I totally get the emotional appeal of the death penalty. The desire for revenge is not some inhuman, foreign trait. And it's not something that should be part of any "justice" system - the death penalty is just wrong.
posted by rtha at 3:44 PM on December 13, 2007


"So, we're, like, 75% sure this guy burned down a house and killed some people."

"HANG HIM!"

"Oh, we also need some money for some fire trucks."

"GO TO HELL."
posted by spiderwire at 3:44 PM on December 13, 2007 [6 favorites]


It's not like we should care about justice or anything.

The notion that "justice" means revenge is one of the stupidest ideas that has currency in this culture.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:55 PM on December 13, 2007 [10 favorites]


fearfulsymmetry: 'Silverstein claims that "no human contact” status is essentially a form of torture reserved for those who kill correctional officers.

Wow, to be honest, I was totally unaware that someone had actually implemented this as a form of punishment. For me it was just a really dark intellectual exercise that was the result of my reading about some really repugnant criminal activity.

Thanks for directing me to this, I'll have to dig a bit deeper.
posted by quin at 3:56 PM on December 13, 2007


I'm sure Texas will take up the slack.

Seriously, this is good news. I'd hope that the US would finally join the civilized world and do away with the death penalty, but I am not optimistic since there are a lot of people who think that torturing people is hunky dory so long as you don't call it torture and argue over whether a torture method is torture or "like swimming".
posted by birdherder at 4:05 PM on December 13, 2007


The younger version of me was strongly in the pro-death penalty camp. I was mainly motivated by the "eye for an eye" concept and felt that at some point a person's acts are so abhorrent to society that they should no longer be part of it on any level. Now I'm in that grey area between pro and con. Racism in the legal system and rampant human error moved me to the middle, but just barely. The system is broken and needs to be fixed, but I don't see a need to abolish it. I wish some of this energy was spent on improving the justice system and strengthening the checks and balances.

I still believe that there is a basic social contract that says you respect human life and you don't murder other people. But when you knowingly and deliberately break that contract you're waiving your right be a part of society. I understand the contradiction in that thought process, but that's one of life's uncertainties (and one of the reason I'm not quite as unflinching on the issue as I used to be). I have a great respect for human life - so much so that it's an insult to not expect the most sever punishment to those that murder. And murdering somebody in the street is not the same as capitol punishment. To say it is is grandstanding.

I've read some articles on the topic, but I'm not committed enough to claim to be any kind of expert or even well versed. And I'm not quite as eloquent in this format as I'd like be at getting my point across. I just know that I have an opinion that has evolved and shifted over my whole adult life and as of today I can't get behind the anti capitol punishment cause. But I'm listening to all sides and always want to learn more. Some of the people in my life that I respect the most are anti-death penalty and that weighs on my thoughts as well. There was a time when I would posted a simple "I'm right and you're wrong" type post, most likely with a snappy pro-death penalty slogan, but it's such a complex issue and frankly the more I think about it the less sure I am.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 4:15 PM on December 13, 2007 [4 favorites]


Yay, Jersey!

Is there a pool on the order in which U.S. States will abolish the death penalty? Because my money's on Texas being the last.
posted by orange swan at 4:23 PM on December 13, 2007


This is good news, and I hope other states (*glares at the red states*) take notice. I'm against the death penalty for two reasons: 1) at the very least, we shouldn't be killing people unless there is a 100% certainty that they are guilty. Just a glance at all the death row reversals due to DNA evidence shows just how inept the court system can be. IANAL, but it seems like overzealous prosecutors who want to be "tough on crime" will railroad some person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And secondly, it's just immoral. We have to decide, as a nation, what level of revenge and what level of mercy we want to carry out. Look at waterboarding--that's another example of how we as a society have to decide what our moral extremes are.

That said, a compromise I could live with is keeping the death penalty only in extreme extreme extreme cases. Here in Japan, they have the death penalty, but it's used rarely, only a few people every year.
posted by zardoz at 4:27 PM on December 13, 2007


too bad it comes down to money. again.
posted by brandz at 4:28 PM on December 13, 2007


Talking about "justice" always makes me a little squirmy. It's like how in spy movies to "bring someone to justice" means to kill them. Nice euphemism there.

I don't believe I've ever said this before, but... ROCK ON, NEW JERSEY!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:35 PM on December 13, 2007


Punishment? Rehabilitation? I don't like either of them. They don't work.

Salvation Run is really the only answer. If a person's not going to abide by the laws of where he is, get him some place where he can make his own rules. Isn't that how Australia was built? And technically the early colonies in the US. People who couldn't cut it in the old world gave the new world a try.

The only problem, is finding a new place to send the dissidents. Suddenly, investment in space exploration looks more appealing, doesn't it?
posted by ZachsMind at 4:42 PM on December 13, 2007


Yay, NJ.

I, too, was indifferent to the death penalty prior to the rash of folks who were found innocent of the crimes that got them the sentence. On that basis, alone, I am now against it thoroughly.

My current means of arguing this, when it infrequently comes up, is to point on that IF we have a death penalty, we endorse the state to intentionally kill.

These are the same people that can't fix the potholes in the roads, get a simple tax problem solved, pay millions out to dead Social Security recipients, start wars on bad information. Do we really want that bunch of bozos in charge of killing citizens?

Also, once we establish that it's ok for the state to kill, and we set a "line", as it were, beyond which the death penalty is warranted, what's to keep the line from being moved? Today, it's killing cops, but in other societies the line was moved so that people with mental illness, homosexual preferences, religion, or ethnicity was suitable justification. Government can't be trusted to do the right thing. Hell, we can't even identify torture in the USA. (Or do trig, calculus, biology, or geography.) What are we doing killing prisoners?

Our politicians are having serious conversations about imaginary beings (god and satan). Our electorate qualifies as apathetic AND ignorant. And we want them to permit death penalties?!

I know a lot more about the law than I did a few years back. There's a good reason most lawyers oppose the death penalty. THey know law and justice have an uneasy relationship.

Imprisonment is bad enough, especially if it's for life. Torture and cruelty are inconsistent with what SHOULD be the values of an evolved society. Of course, there are those who aren't evolved and don't want to be, so we'll have to wait, sadly, for the masses to grow up and be better than simple Darwinian machines.
posted by FauxScot at 4:51 PM on December 13, 2007


Because my money's on Texas being the last.

If you find anyone willing to bet against Texas, bet the house.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:16 PM on December 13, 2007


IANAL, but it seems like overzealous prosecutors who want to be "tough on crime" will railroad some person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

IAALS, and I have a distinct memory of a former assistant DA I worked with telling me about how he'd sat in the courtroom and watched the judge drop the gavel declaring a guilty verdict in a death penalty case he'd prosecuted. It was a really fucked-up thing to hear. In retrospect, I'm not sure how he felt about it; I recall that -- superficially -- he seemed satisfied he'd done his job (as he was about any case, which is the sign of a good prosecutor, IMO) -- but behind that was something else entirely inscrutable. Not really good or bad; maybe just way too big to process.

I recall that this is the reason Justice Stevens is uncomfortable with the death penalty -- he relates it to when he heard that Admiral Yamamoto's plane was shot down -- as a direct result of Stevens' team breaking a Japanese code (Stevens was a cryptographer and was awarded a Bronze Star before he went to law school, incidentally). He didn't seem to lament it per se, largely because the decision was far above his pay grade, but seemed to indicate his feeling that killing a specific individual isn't the sort of thing that can be reduced to doctrine, or judicial formula.

As time goes on, that stands out to me more and more. I often wonder about those sitting on juries delivering guilty verdicts in death penalty cases. Voir dire notwithstanding, that's a lot to place on someone's shoulders. Of course, as a juror, you have a job to do, and a certain loyalty to the constitutional order and the adversary process, but you didn't exactly choose to take on that responsibility, either. It's just handed to you. Worse, if you have doubts about the death penalty, they conflict with your duty as a juror, and you have to deal with that as well. And it's not exactly analogous to being a soldier, which is I think what Stevens was getting at -- the accused is a tangible person sitting right in front of you for who knows how long. I can't imagine that it wouldn't come back to haunt you constantly.

As someone said upthread, the death penalty, unlike life without parole, isn't reversible if you make a mistake. I can't even begin to imagine how a juror might feel if it turned out that the case was wrongly decided.

All my other objections to capital punishment aside, this problem alone is more than enough to make it unacceptable to me. I think it's fundamentally incompatible with the jury-trial requirement; it's not right to require people to make that decision. When we talk about the "system" deciding to put someone death, we need to keep in mind that in reality, that responsibility in fact falls to a group of people who aren't part of the justice system, and who, by all rights, had nothing to do with the crime in the first place, but have to shoulder the heavy responsibility of passing the judgment. I can't come to terms with that.
posted by spiderwire at 5:30 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


I applaud the decision, but for it to truly be a nationwide trend, there would have to be Life Without Parole provisions on the books in every state, since there are people too dangerous to be out in society ever and that's the more humane way to keep them out.
posted by jonmc at 5:32 PM on December 13, 2007


If you find anyone willing to bet against Texas, bet the house.

Bad advice. Texas' homestead law makes houses judgment-proof, so you actually can't take a Texan's house.
posted by spiderwire at 5:32 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


We fucked up when we gave the state the power to murder.

If the state has the power to go to war, it can already legally kill. The state can enact many actions that individuals can't.

I've always been against the death penalty, but I waver a bit over whether it's an ethical choice or just a practical one - that is, since we can kill the wrong guy, I'm against it in practice, but if we could be sure we weren't making mistakes, where would I stand? It seems like the practical issue kind of sidesteps the hard part of really working out the ethical stance. I guess in a way it's just not that central an issue to me, since I think the important end is the preventive side of things.

But the best argument I've heard for the death penalty was from Kant: that it is a worse punishment for a murderer with a conscience to be forced to live their life with what they've done, and a better fate for the murderer who doesn't give a shit - so giving the murderer life without parole instead of the death penalty is like punishing conscience.

Still, this seems perhaps a little cheap, as if a person simply does or doesn't have conscience, rather than being a complex psychological entity.. So maybe the point should just be that we don't have to compare their various qualities of life, as long as they're not harming our population.
posted by mdn at 5:56 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


That's a good point re: Kant, mdn, and I hadn't thought about it that way before. I was always of the opinion that a life in jail would be a far worse punishment than death, but I guess that's coloured by my own lack of belief in any kind of after-life. Just as I imagine that the support of death as a punishment in others is driven by their belief in an after-life. Although, of course, criminals on death row can go find Jesus and be assured a quick trip to heaven, I guess...

But I'm getting off track. I never understood the death penalty as justice; justice is not revenge, and I don't see how anyone could have faith in a system that carries out penalties that can never be reversed if the guilty are later found to be innocent.

I don't understand it as a deterrent; these crimes are so often carried out in a state of emotional blackness - the criminal isn't thinking it's going to land them on death-row, they're not thinking about that at all, or they're working on the common overly-confidant assumption that they'll never get caught.

How many people do you think were about to kill someone else, then thought to themselves "Oh shit, I'd better not do that, what if they sentence me to death?!"

Anyway, congrats NJ, hope the trend continues.
posted by Jimbob at 6:16 PM on December 13, 2007


These are the same people that can't fix the potholes in the roads, get a simple tax problem solved, pay millions out to dead Social Security recipients, start wars on bad information. Do we really want that bunch of bozos in charge of killing citizens?

While I agree with your opinion on the death penalty, I think it's not good to use this line of attack, it's pernicious in other ways. Government can do many things very well, IF it's properly funded and the will to succeed is there. The possibility that government can do certain things all too well is exactly what ol' Orwell was worried about.
posted by JHarris at 6:18 PM on December 13, 2007


You always hear about people on death row being released because new evidence proves their innocence. Yet, you never hear about people in for life without parole getting released. I wonder if that will change, or if people in for life will just be left to rot by all the anti-death penalty people out there.
posted by delmoi at 6:20 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


"If the state has the power to go to war, it can already legally kill. The state can enact many actions that individuals can't."

The state of war is (arguably) self-defense and is also against non-citizens.
If we could neutralize a threat to our country and/or achieve our ends without violence, without killing, then we should do so whenever possible.
Killing is justifiable only when it's immediately and absolutely necessary. (In war, threats are immediate in that they're ongoing and surprise is a factor).
If the U.S. developed some superweapon that could knock people out for a useful period of time (such that you could apprehend them or imprison them or some such) and it was superior in efficiency to the weapons we have now, I'd argue it would be wrong to kill in time of war as well.

Once someone is subdued and under your control, you have no right to kill them. That holds true for people, it should hold true to an entity as powerful as any state. I'd add that the life of any individual is superior to the incorporation of any state. Where the state holds, by policy, it's organizational value as superior to the lives (or liberties) of it's citizens, it should be dissolved. (The English monarchy was vested in a person - but same deal)
posted by Smedleyman at 6:35 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Around about ~95 there was a documentary on the BBC about the death penalty and how it is carried out in various states across the world. The documentary pulled no punches and showed beheadings in Saudi Arabia (IIRC) and electrocutions and hangings etc in other countries across the world.

It was impossible to watch without being deeply affected by it. I was always against the death penalty but that documentary cemented my beliefs.
posted by schwa at 6:57 PM on December 13, 2007


I'm all for the death penalty, but its so poorly and unevenly implemented that its just as well that the state has done away with it.
posted by blaneyphoto at 6:59 PM on December 13, 2007


My sole objection to the death penalty -- and it's a significant one -- is that because it's an absolute punishment, you have to be very close to absolutely sure that you have the right person before you zap them.

But, in a hypothetical case where you're sure that you have the right person, I have no objection to killing them. I understand not everyone shares this feeling, and I respect the stance of others in regards to killing always being wrong, but I don't share it.

I just don't have enough compassion for someone who hurts others to want to rehabilitate them. Being 'a human being' doesn't earn you any automatic points in my book. Being a decent human being sure does (and, being an optimist, I prefer to think that most people are decent), but you reduce your value to less than zero when you start being destructive. The moral objection to executions has always rung hollow, as do all conclusions* that are drawn from an essential value placed on "human life." Human life has no value to me -- lives (that is, what someone might potentially do with their life) certainly, but not the life itself. Talking about the preciousness of 'human life' seems rather close to talking about souls to me.

That said, the cost/benefit objection to executions is one that I find pretty convincing. However, I'd prefer to keep the death penalty around on the books for particularly heinous cases -- ones where there's likely to be a public outcry (and vigilantism) if the perpetrator is not executed, and subsequent damage to confidence in the justice system -- but just not invoke it on a day-to-day basis.

* E.g., the moral argument against abortion used by many religious folks. By concentrating on the value of 'lives' rather than 'life,' whether a fetus is "alive" or not becomes moot. The question is instead whether the net outcome from destroying it is better than the net outcome from carrying it to term -- and in general empirical evidence has showed that mothers are in the best position to make that call.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:05 PM on December 13, 2007


Once someone is subdued and under your control, you have no right to kill them. That holds true for people, it should hold true to an entity as powerful as any state.

Yeeeah, but individuals don't have the right to lock people in their basements for life either... To think of the state as being just another individual but bigger is misunderstanding what the state is. The whole point of having a state is so that we can collectively make decisions that as individuals we would not be able to make, for the larger benefit. Justice as handed out by the state includes fines and incarcerations, which individuals would not be able to impose, so it's not a question of what an individual can do. The point is just whether we collectively consider it a proper approach to justice and the common good.
posted by mdn at 7:07 PM on December 13, 2007


Kadin2048 writes "I just don't have enough compassion for someone who hurts others to want to rehabilitate them. Being 'a human being' doesn't earn you any automatic points in my book. Being a decent human being sure does (and, being an optimist, I prefer to think that most people are decent), but you reduce your value to less than zero when you start being destructive."

I don't think the state should take the position of meting out rehabilitative services based on these criteria. Who needs rehabilitation more than those who are being destructive?

Not everyone can be rehabilitated. Some people have mental illnesses and need to be treated. But some people are capable of being productive, which is the way it's done. Right now, we provide little to no services in this regard (much of it has been cut), so most of those who would respond to work and school programs (which are proven to reduce recidivism significantly) don't have the chance to, even if they wanted. So, we send people back out into the world with zero chance of making it legitimately, no platform to build on, no skills or education and a prison record, and guess where they end up before long?

That's what happens when you let that sort of thinking rule public policy. It's foolishness.
posted by krinklyfig at 7:53 PM on December 13, 2007


If the state has the power to go to war, it can already legally kill.

I said murder, not kill.

I wonder if that will change, or if people in for life will just be left to rot by all the anti-death penalty people out there.

I imagine it'll shift. People with the death penalty are a little more pressed for time and therefore higher priority.

Once someone is subdued and under your control, you have no right to kill them. That holds true for people, it should hold true to an entity as powerful as any state.

Well-put.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:05 PM on December 13, 2007


Once someone is subdued and under your control, you have no right to kill them. That holds true for people, it should hold true to an entity as powerful as any state.

Well-put.


So you guys are advocating for a shift to more of a "Running Man"-style system, then?
posted by spiderwire at 8:10 PM on December 13, 2007


Yeah, folks have used the "omg so expensive to keep jailbirds" argument before. Because prisoners get FREE FOOD and don't have to pay rent and get to spend all day working out, all for the low-low price of occasionally taking it up the ass. Come to think of it, sounds a lot like marriage in the state of New Jersey.
posted by Eideteker at 9:01 PM on December 13, 2007


Wow - The news on in the other room just covered the same issue in a very different way - They called up the parents of Megan Kanka, and asked them how they felt about Jesse Timmendequas no longer being eligible for the death penalty. I love television.
posted by Orb2069 at 9:41 PM on December 13, 2007


So I guess my trip to the Jersey DMV one town away today (via public bus transportation in the ice and slush) in order to finally go legit, turn in my NY license, and achieve legal Jersey Girl status has been made just a bit less (oh, I hate to admit it, but it's true) painful thanks to this ruling. Go Jersey!
posted by stagewhisper at 10:35 PM on December 13, 2007


"Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except If Thou Art Righteously Pissed Off"
posted by tehloki at 10:40 PM on December 13, 2007


So you guys are advocating for a shift to more of a "Running Man"-style system, then?

What, of putting people into a position where they're dangerous so they can be killed? That's horrible.

...I really wish they'd make a movie out of The Running Man instead of a shitty Arnold movie bearing the same title.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:42 PM on December 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


The only problem, is finding a new place to send the dissidents. Suddenly, investment in space exploration looks more appealing, doesn't it?

Yes! Blast convicts into space! That will definitely save money.

The only problem is that our descendants and their hairpieces will have to face the Wrath of Khan.
posted by XMLicious at 11:08 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Salvation Run is really the only answer. If a person's not going to abide by the laws of where he is, get him some place where he can make his own rules. Isn't that how Australia was built? And technically the early colonies in the US. People who couldn't cut it in the old world gave the new world a try.

Can't speak for the founding of the US, but ouch. Convicted rapists and murderers weren't transported to Australia, although I'm not disputing that rapes and murders did take place in the colony. The vast majority of convicts were transported for simple theft or some variation thereof: pickpocketing, burglary, highway robbery, receiving stolen goods. Some were also sent over for assault, others for fraud. Good people? No. But not irredeemable.

Which makes sense. The convicts ended up as government-owned slaves, with a clear path to manumission. In the rough-and-tumble of the early colony, who could trust murderers and rapists to work a farm alongside a free settler and his family?

(Personally, my favorite whacked-out punishment is the penal military unit, as exemplified by the Dirty Dozen.)
posted by Ritchie at 2:02 AM on December 14, 2007


The latest Perry Bible Fellowship seems relevant... because if you are going to execute someone, at least get some entertainment out of it.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:03 AM on December 14, 2007


If a murderer with a conscience is given life without parole, and decides that it's worse than death, maybe he should be allowed to commit suicide. Although if you make suicide a legal option for all inmates, I imagine we'd be seeing a lot of "suicides".
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 4:11 AM on December 14, 2007


I said murder, not kill.

Why isn't that just silly semantics? What do you think distinguishes killing from murder in this context? That murder is unlawful killing? That murder requires malice aforethought?
posted by Slap Factory at 6:01 AM on December 14, 2007


Slap Factory: Why isn't that just silly semantics?

It is semantics, but it's a pretty major difference. You answered the question in you own post. Murder is "The unlawful killing of one human by another, especially with premeditated malice.". Killing animals for food is not murder. Killing in a war is not murder. A lion killing a human baby is not murder. A person getting crushed to death by a falling safe is not murder, unless somebody intentionaly dropped the safe on them. It's like saying that there's no difference between incarceration and kidnapping.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 7:22 AM on December 14, 2007


the twin aims of incarceration, that is, punishment and rehabilitation

Are those really the twin aims of incarceration? I thought they were:

1. To channel public monies into the coffers of those construction and management firms that build and run prisons, and
2. To keep criminals away from society and completely forgotten about.
posted by psmealey at 7:52 AM on December 14, 2007


At a certain threshold, which our society has determined is murder plus aggravating circumstances, the desire to rehabilitate is completely swamped by the desire to punish.

The problem is that "threshold" has much more to do with the defendant being poor, or black, or uneducated, than the actual circumstances of the crime.

Setting aside the issue of innocent people on death row, a basic principle of retributive justice is that the sentence must be proportional to the circumstances of the crime. One of the many problems with the death penalty is that criminals who commit similar crimes are given radically dissimilar sentences, even in some cases crimes handled as voluntary manslaughter. If you look at the thousands of homicides successfully prosecuted, and the handful of crimes in which the death penalty is applied, the de facto standard is clearly one of racial and social bias.

Eliminating the death penalty isn't going to be a panacea for dealing with bias in the criminal justice system, but it's clear that in 30 years of legalization that American criminal justice system has been unable to develop a system of death penalty sentencing that is fair and impartial.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:17 AM on December 14, 2007


I know it's an old argument, but think about China. Official numbers state things like 3,000 killed every year, other estimates go up to ten, for things like embezzlement, drug dealing, and jeapordizing national security, which you know is a very malleable term. When a death sentence comes down they are executed within half an hour. At the local level, when crimes are between private citizens, the courts are fairly fair and impartial, so we should assume that when they catch a drug dealer, he's actually a drug dealer. They don't make the family pay for the bullet anymore, but they do have execution vans that roll right up behind the courthouse and take care of business. That, right there, is a cost-efficient death penalty.

Either some kinds of people deserve to die, or they don't. And no matter where you put that line, someone else will put it in a different place. It doesn't matter what anyone has done to me, I don't want someone else's life on my conscience. Jail, fines, therapy, revocation of certain privileges, fine. But not someone's entire future.
posted by saysthis at 9:38 AM on December 14, 2007


“The point is just whether we collectively consider it a proper approach to justice and the common good.” -posted by mdn

No. That is, perhaps, your point. My point is on the practical execution of state power.
And it’s perfectly analogous to an individual. If someone punches me once then stops, I don’t have the right to then kill them predicated on some future threat from them.
Similarly, if someone attempts to use lethal force on me I can kill them in self-defense, if I choose not to at that critical moment and I instead I disarm them and subdue them (because I’m that bad-ass), maybe tie them up - I should then get on the phone to the cops because (collectively) I can lock them up (because the state is many magnitudes more bad-ass).

I pay taxes which support prisons. I delegate to the state the power and responsibility to maintain my assailant in a subdued, impotent position (behind bars).
I am very much part of that even though it’s not in my basement.

So too - once I’ve got the guy tied up, if I suddenly come to the conclusion that he now must die because he tried to kill me and I kill him, that is a morally wrong act.
Similarly - the state executes people who are for nearly all intents neutralized.

I’m not arguing the state is an individual but bigger. I’m arguing the state is a convenient fiction we participate in so as to effectively do - that is have the power to do - what we can’t practically do individually.

Morally there is no difference. And it works both ways.

It is with this distinction that I cede individual troops killing people on the field of battle - do it because they must. They are there under our de facto authority and will. That which they do, we are responsible for except where war crimes and such are concerned.
So they can be excused for shooting someone who is trying to kill them even though they shouldn’t, perhaps, be in - say- Iraq in the first place.
The individual soldier didn’t choose to be there (although he chose to serve - whole other issue) - he is merely an instrument of our will. If he’s morally wrong as he goes about his duty as we define it, then we’re morally wrong.

If he does something outside or contrary to his duty however (rape, torture, etc) then he is responsible for it, like any crime.
Where torture, rape, etc. is policy, the soldier is less culpable (not completely exonerated - I agree with the philosophy of the Nuremberg trials that is, in part, the fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him).
Similarly - I don’t blame the executioner who carries out state executions. I might abhor what he’s doing, I might have a moral issue with it, but I see no situation in which I can directly confront him and legitimately attempt to stop him through threat or practical action because he is not responsible for “executions” as a class, he’s just an instrument of the state’s will.

And indeed, doesn’t have a moral choice, strictly speaking, under the law. Certainly he himself can choose not to take the job, and that’s a personal moral choice. But the position itself - whomever is the actor - does not allow for judgment of innocents, guilt, what have you. The executioner can’t choose not to throw the switch in his capacity as an agent of the state. (He should refuse to be an agent of the state, given he knows exactly what it is he’s in for, but that’s a whole other issue). Essentially: stopping him won’t stop executions any more than attempting to tell soldiers not to fight will stop wars. The responsibility for and power over such matters lay at a different level and as such any practical effort and moral redress must be directed there.

The state is not immune to the responsibility that an individual has in taking a life once there is no longer a threat.
The state has the power to keep a threat neutralized, where it does, it should not kill.
Were I to take my argument to the absurd conclusion you presume I would be arguing that law enforcement could not kill someone to save others’ lives.
I’m not arguing that at all. In those situations where a threat is immediate and direct (or oblique if ongoing) the state has the power - and indeed more than an individual, an obligation, in the very terms you lay out - to kill.

A police sniper out here killed a guy who took some people hostage. I see only very limited situations in which it would be ok for a civilian to in the same way, take aim with a rifle and kill someone under the same circumstances.
If that civilian had some sanction from the police or some such (like it’s a small town and nobody but Earl the Marine vet can make that shot), but most people would think that’s waaaay too cowboy and would be ‘taking the law into your own hands.’
Much like the dolt who went next door and shot some people burglarizing his neighbors house.
It’s a job for the cops because that’s the power we delegate them. And they have responsibility commensurate with that (perhaps only in theory, some places). We do (’should’, some places) have oversight over police actions as state actors. We don’t have oversight over some guy with a gun who decides to show up and mete his brand of justice.
(I’d add, as a practical matter, we also have less oversight over state actions if we do allow them to execute prisoners)

But morally - there’s no difference in depriving someone of their right to life if 10,000 people do it, or if 1 person does it.
Just because millions of people agree on something, does not mean they have the right to deprive someone of their right to life.
They can deprive them of their liberty only because he’s a threat to their lives and/or liberties (or property, etc).
I’m pro-choice for the same reasons. The state can’t force you to take responsibility for a life where you have no power (ability) to sustain it without severe loss. So too (in the inverse) death.
The state should not be able to force you to deprive someone else of life where the right to life can be sustained without severe loss to you.
The severity of the crime involved, circumstances, etc. don’t play into it.
Guilt, innocence, not an issue. It’s a matter of power/policy in execution.
As an individual you can pay some taxes to keep someone locked up and they won’t hurt you. You have the power to neutralize that threat, and manifestly if someone is in prison, they’re effectively neutralized, far more, in fact, than if you disarmed them and tied them up.
That’s the objective. Neutralization of the threat.

Anything more is an appeal to retribution because threat neutralization can be achieved efficiently - and indeed provably more efficiently - without killing those who are already imprisoned.
Anything more is cold bloodedly cutting the throat of someone you’ve already knocked out and tied up. The fact that someone tried - past tense - to kill you doesn’t legitimize killing them after the imminent threat is gone. Most particularly given the (mucho bad ass) resources at the disposal of the state to maintain that neutralization.

(All other factors of equity, appeal, etc, etc, merely compound the matter and point out the inefficiency of the current conceptual framework built around retribution/revenge or promotion of some sort of agenda other than efficient threat neutralization.
Understandable, if my mom got raped and killed, I’d want to fry someone as well. And maybe I’m a powerful man, so I can get it done. But we’re a nation of laws, not men. And in my quest for vengence I might push the investigation and the prosecution out of alignment and convict an innocent man.
I mean how obvious must it be that anger distorts accurate judgement? No one, apparently, remembers the story of the minotaur (y’know, man with a bull’s head, in a labyrinth - Bueller?).
So we must guard against such things, best way to do that, again, is to allow a prisoner to live. All logic points that direction, however powerful the visceral appeal.)
posted by Smedleyman at 10:44 AM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Regarding murder v. killing by the state:
It is semantics, but it's a pretty major difference. You answered the question in you own post. Murder is "The unlawful killing of one human by another, especially with premeditated malice.". Killing animals for food is not murder. Killing in a war is not murder. A lion killing a human baby is not murder. A person getting crushed to death by a falling safe is not murder, unless somebody intentionaly dropped the safe on them. It's like saying that there's no difference between incarceration and kidnapping.

That does not explain how the point of view that the state should not be involved in murder is relevant in a discussion about capital punishment. The death penalty is lawful in most of the states in the union, so it's not murder when it is practiced in those states.
posted by Slap Factory at 12:21 PM on December 14, 2007


I moved to New Jersey a few years ago, and I have to say that it keeps growing on me. And that's not in a carcinogenic kind of way - in an honest-to-goodness-it's-a-decent-place-to-live-and-work-and-play kind of way. Who would have thunk?
posted by greekphilosophy at 2:25 PM on December 14, 2007


I lived in NJ for seven years, and I can't say that it grew on me. The traffic alone was enough to hate it. There are some good people there, but there are good people everywhere.

Now I live in China, where there is a prevalent death penalty looming over everyone. I don't know if it's morally right or not, but I have to say that people are very polite to each other. There is precious little violent crime. You can walk down the street at any time of night without fear of being robbed or raped or beaten up. I don't think you can say that about Jersey City or Newark.
posted by strangeguitars at 6:20 AM on December 15, 2007


Now I live in China, where there is a prevalent death penalty looming over everyone. I don't know if it's morally right or not, but I have to say that people are very polite to each other. There is precious little violent crime. You can walk down the street at any time of night without fear of being robbed or raped or beaten up. I don't think you can say that about Jersey City or Newark.

Can you say that aboutt Tibet?
posted by spiderwire at 2:49 PM on December 15, 2007


Now I live in China, where there is a prevalent death penalty looming over everyone. I don't know if it's morally right or not, but I have to say that people are very polite to each other. There is precious little violent crime. You can walk down the street at any time of night without fear of being robbed or raped or beaten up. I don't think you can say that about Jersey City or Newark.

I'll bet that if sneezing publicly was punishable by death, you'd see very little of that, too. Which probably makes it a good idea.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:40 AM on December 16, 2007


Now I live in China, where there is a prevalent death penalty looming over everyone. I don't know if it's morally right or not, but I have to say that people are very polite to each other. There is precious little violent crime. You can walk down the street at any time of night without fear of being robbed or raped or beaten up. I don't think you can say that about Jersey City or Newark.

It's so delicious when fascists out themselves.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:47 AM on December 16, 2007


That does not explain how the point of view that the state should not be involved in murder is relevant in a discussion about capital punishment. The death penalty is lawful in most of the states in the union, so it's not murder when it is practiced in those states.

Also, if there's no law against sneaking into someone's house and taking their shit, it isn't theft! Human laws determine reality! I'll alert the nearest Philosophy department!
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:49 AM on December 16, 2007


the nearest philosophy department is perfectly aware of that, Pope Guilty, and like it or not, human laws or judgment/norms do determine morality by most accounts. There are a few who hold out for some kind of moral realism, but it's a tough one to defend, as enticing and even intuitive as it sounds to a lot of folks. Without an authority of some sort, the rightness or wrongness is the judgment of those judging. You may be certain it's wrong, but if someone else is certain it's right, then how do we determine who is actually correct? Obviously some people do not think capital punishment is a kind of murder.

You are presumably defining humanity as intelligence, so that killing anything that has a certain level of intelligence is wrong, but you presumably allow for the killing of some living things that don't have that kind of intelligence - animals, or maybe terry schiavo, or fetuses, perhaps? But there are people whose criteria differ. For some people the important thing about being human isn't the capacity to be aware but the capacity to be moral, and therefore the innocence of a fetus is a reason that it is considered murder to abort, while ending the life of someone who's committed atrocities is not. The humanity is already gone, from that perspective - killing Hitler wouldn't be murder, it would be justice (I'm not saying I'd agree, but just that it is arguable).

Basically, I think a lot of people in this thread just have a very pragmatic, utilitarian approach to ethics, where consciousness, pain & pleasure are the key ingredients. THis is fine, and I think a perfectly good approach, but rather than say "this is clearly the Truth", it's better to acknowledge the goals of your own outlook. If we want a world where our aim is to increase pleasure for conscious beings, and decrease pain, then arguably the killing of any conscious being is bad, increasingly bad as consciousness increases (though some will claim being kept alive in a cell is worse, so, fight that one out). But if the aim of human beings is to choose the Right actions, then it can be argued that the recognition and punishment of the wrong actions is an important element of clarifying that moral distinction - not just as a pragmatic, "keep them out of the way" approach, but as a serious, "let it be known that you made an evil choice" thing.

With god dead and all, that seems weird to most of us, but to claim that there are absolute right & wrong AND that the death penalty is absolutely wrong is a funny criss-cross in a way. ONe of the reasons for the death penalty is that if there really are absolute Wrongs, then there can be absolute punishments. It's only because it turns out most people agree we kinda live in a wishy washy not-that-absolute world that we try to stay away from punishment and work on communication instead...
posted by mdn at 12:49 PM on December 16, 2007


strange guitars, I am not sure where you live in China, but my father worked there for years. His second wife is from outside Beijing. He, his wife, and my half-sister (who is now 12) still spend a large part of every year back in China. Granted, the safety issues for them personally have gotten better over the years, but my father has been jumped and beaten in the past, once badly enough to have his nose broken and a tooth or two chipped.

I live in Jersey City and walk the mile daily from the Path station to my house in the very non-gentrified "heights" at all times of the day and night. I also often run for an hour or so at 5:00 in the morning or 10:30 at night. I'm not naive enough to never consider that something bad might happen (although though I've yet to feel threatened), but I've never once thought, "jeez, I really wish Jersey City had a prevalent death penalty hanging over everyone the way China does, so I might finally feel truly safe and secure".
posted by stagewhisper at 8:04 PM on December 16, 2007


Hey, don't paint me as some kind of moral realist! I'm an emotivist, dammit!

Emotivist utilitarianism uber alles!
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:52 PM on December 16, 2007


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