Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Commons and The Death Penalty

Today Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois abolished the death penalty in that state, joining three other states who have done so in as many years.   Much of the impetus behind getting rid of the death penalty has been the very fine work of Equal Justice USA, the Innocence Project, the many chapters of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and numerous other organizations.   I commend them all and I commend Patrick Quinn for doing the right thing.    

There are many criticisms of the death penalty.   The Death Penalty Information Center ( has excellent documentation on its website of the racist nature of its enforcement.  You are far more likely to get the death penalty if the person you killed is white than if they are Black or Latino.  If you kill someone, you are more likely to be sentenced to death if you are Black than if you are white.  

Another problem is how many people on death row have not committed murder, or may not have committed any crime at all.  Many who have been exonerated have led the charge to abolish the death penalty, but many did not live to see their names cleared.  

Another problem is the cost.    There are now 34 states that still have the death penalty.  One of them is my state, California, where almost 700 people wait for execution on death row, while the taxpayers of California pay $125 million a year more to keep them there than if their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and they joined the rest of the inmate population.  

Other problems include how cruel are current methods of execution are, the fact that the death penalty does not deter other people from committing murder, the psychological toll the executions take on guards, chaplains and the doctors that oversee them, and the ultimate irony that the person who is punished in this way has no chance to redeem him or herself.  

From a commons point of view, each of the above is reason alone to abolish the death penalty.  But the biggest reason and one which I don’t see mentioned nearly often enough, is that it is simply wrong for the state to murder people.   I am horrified by the number of people who have been wrongly convicted and sit on death row innocent of the crime for which they will eventually be executed.  However does that mean if we could somehow guarantee that every person on death row was a cold blooded murderer, the death penalty would then be appropriate?  If we could insure a race neutral justice system, would the death penalty then be OK?  And if we could get the cost down, should we execute more people?  

We have become so practical that we even approach literal life and death issues with logistical or cost concerns.  But the question of the morality of the death penalty, the moral questions that surround our prison system, and the moral questions that should permeate our justice system are by and large unanswered because they are unasked.  

The questions we really need to dive into here are crime and punishment.  Should criminals be punished?  If yes, how, toward what end?  The word ‘penitentiary’ comes from a Latin word meaning  “I am sorry.”  The notion is that the Penitentiary lets people repent, be rehabilitated and be returned to their communities.  Perhaps there are some people that cannot be returned, and for the sake of the common good, must remain in prison.  But it is hard to imagine that this describes more than a tiny fraction of the people now in prison, whether for murder or for some lesser crime.  I hope that all of us who are promoting a commons view will raise the larger moral questions that need to be asked when we enter the conversations that will undoubtedly happen as a result of Gov. Quinn’s very correct decision. 

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