capital punishment

2005 09 27

Cassia and I recently joined in a heated discussion (persons at the adjacent tables in the restaurant might call it an annoyingly loud argument, but that would be their opinion...) regarding the subject of capital punishment and whether we should re-instate it in Canada. I was on the "don't be stupid, of course we shouldn't have capital punishment" side of the discussion. However, after the discussion, I realised that I hadn't supported my case as well as I should have, and this caused me to think some more about why I have a knee-jerk reaction against capital punishment. This thought process lead me to my present opinion with which I am satisfied to stick. It goes something like this:

We have a justice system in order to punish those we (that is to say, our society) have deemed to be guilty of committing that which we have decided is a crime. Let's start by making a couple of assumptions.

Killing someone else without a good reason is one of the biggest crimes one can commit. (We will not talk about what constitutes "a good reason".)

The punishment for committing the crime of killing someone without a good reason should either be (1) life in prison or (2) death.

So, given these two assumptions, let's talk about which of these two (life imprisonment or death) is the smarter option.

There are three simple reasons to punish someone for committing a crime.

1. Punishment can be used to reform. You steal something, you go to jail. While you're in jail, you will hopefully learn that stealing is fundamentally wrong. So, when you get out of jail, you don't steal again because you've learned that what you did was bad.

2. Punishment is used to protect society from the criminal. If you go around killing people, then you should be put in jail where you can't go around killing people, so the rest of us are safe.

3. Punishment is a deterrent. If you think "If I kill that person, I will be punished" then you might not kill in the first place.

Let's take each of these individually within the context of a debate for or against capital punishment.

The first reason, punishment as a tool to reform, is not appicable within the confines of this argument. Since I'm considering that there are only two options, life in prison or death, then reformation is irrelevant. The murderer will go to jail and never come out, therefore it doesn't matter to society whether or not that person is reformed.

The second reason, punishement to protect society is served equally well by life in prison and death. In either of these two cases, society is protected from the murderer, therefore this reason cannot be used to argue for or against capital punishment.

That leaves us with the third reason, punishment as a deterrent. There are some who would argue that the fear of being put to death is greater than the fear of life imprisonment, therefore, capital punishment is a better deterrent. If this were true, then a society with capital punishment should have a lower murder rate than a society with similar values but without the death penalty. A good example of this comparison is the United States of America and Canada. Some US states have capital punishment. Canada does not. Therefore, if the death penalty was a better deterrent for murder, then the US murder rate should be lower than that of Canada. In fact, the murder rate per 1000 people in the USA is 0.04 - in other words, 4 in every 100,000 persons are murdered every year. In Canada, the rate is one quarter of this, 0.01 per 1000 or 1 in every 100,000. (You can look this up yourself if you don't trust me.) So, if one were to draw a conclusion from this statistic, one could over-simplify and say that capital punishment actually increases the murder rate. I wouldn't go that far, but I would certainly argue that it does not serve as a greater deterrent.

So, this leaves us with one yet undiscussed issue: cost. However, this is the only issue left. Ultimately, the argument of whether we should or should not have capital punishment comes down to whether I as a taxpayer feel that it is worth my tax dollers to keep a prisoner fed for the number of years he will spend in prison until a natural death occurs, or whether we should just save some cash and kill the guy now. Now we enter into the two issues of risk management and opinion.

The first issue in this case is risk management or probability. There have been cases where we (meaning the Canadian justice system, and therefore Canadian society) have put the wrong guy in jail for life and then decided later that we screwed up and let the person go (do a search for the name David Milgard, for example). In the case of life imprisonment, we have that possibility - we can't undo the error, but at least we can let the guy out. In the case of execution, we don't have the option. So, the question is "what is the probability that we conviced the wrong person?" If it's greater than 0, then we will, at sometime, wrongfully put someone to death.

Then, there's opinion. My opinion is that, since there is a probability, no matter how small, that we convicted the wrong guy, then it's worth the tax dollars to keep him alive in a prison cell - just in case. I'm willing to pay for the insurance policy that covers the possibility that we put the wrong person in jail.

However, you may disagree. You may feel that it's not worth the money to imprison someone for life, regardless of the fact that it might be the wrong person. And this is where the argument is contained. We may or may not disagree on whether it's worth the cash, but other the sides of the debate are irrelevant or incorrect.

In fact, one could go so far as to calculate the average cost of legal fees for appeals for a person on death row in the US versus the average cost of keeping someone in a jail cell for the average term of a life-in-prison inmate, but I won't bother. I just think that it's worth the cash.