Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Baby Love

The Supremes sang their rendition of "Baby Love" yesterday, lining up 5-4 to rule that execution of minors violates the 8th Amendment proscription against cruel and unusual punishment.
I don't mean to make light of the Supreme Court ruling. It is a long-overdue step in the right direction. Consider that the United States is the last country in the world to outlaw execution of minors -- following bans in such progressive corners of the globe as Iran, China, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.
But what still needs to be addressed is the belief of the U.S. justice system -- and a majority of citizens, according to polls -- that once an offender turns 18, state-sanctioned execution constitutes "kind and usual punishment" (apologies to Jessica Mitford).
The death penalty is wrong.
It does not serve as a deterrent to crime, and it does not increase public safety.
That this is true has been shown over and over, in comparisons of death-penalty states and nations vs. non-death penalty states and nations.
Says the Death Penalty Information Center:
"As executions rose, states without the death penalty fared much better than
states with the death penalty in reducing their murder rates. The gap
between the murder rate in death penalty states and the non-death penalty states
grew larger (as shown in Chart II). In 1990, the murder rates in these two
groups were 4% apart. By 2000, the murder rate in the death penalty states
was 35% higher than the rate in states without the death penalty. In 2001,
the gap between non-death penalty states and states with the death penalty again
grew, reaching 37%. For 2002, the number stands at 36%."

Supporters argue that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for certain types of crimes. Some will go so far as to say that it satisfies a deep social need for vengeance.
in 1988, Michael Dukakis's campaign for the presidency was damaged -- perhaps fatally -- by Bernard Shaw's opening question in the second debate asking him if he would still oppose the death penalty if his wife became a victim of rape and murder.
Dukakis's answer was viewed as cold and legalistic, and maybe it was.
Here's what I would have said:
If my wife or daughter were raped and murdered, of course I would want to see the killer dead. I would want to kill him or her with my bare hands. That is a normal reaction of a husband and father (or wife, son, daughter, etc.) to a horrific crime.
But when I step back, I recognize that wishing for the death of another person demeans me.
That wish for vengeance is not a noble impulse. It would be me at my worst -- grief-stricken, horrified.
Why would we want to base public policy on our worst impulses as human beings?
The continued practice of the death penalty in the United States separates us from our brothers and sisters in Europe and much of the rest of the world. It lumps us in with Saudi Arabia, Iran and other repressive regimes. Why do we want to keep this kind of company?
The death penalty is wrong.
The Supreme Court has, in the past few years, eliminated it as an option for punishing the mentally retarded and children. I hear that the application of capital punishment on the mentally ill will be considered in the near future.
But it is time to abolish this barbaric practice altogether. We are better than this.
The death penalty is wrong.