As an interesting counterpoint to a United States Attorney General who is reluctant to say that it is unconstitutional to use drones to execute American citizens on American soil, in Olympia, we have a bill before the legislature that proposes to ban the death penalty in the state of Washington, which has drawn some interesting supporters, including former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper.
While Norm makes a habit of being wrong about lots of important things, he has a particularly insightful wrong opinion about the death penalty,and he graciously came on John Carlson’s show this morning to share it.
The thrust of Stamper’s position is this:
1.) Expense. Stamper maintains that the cost to prosecute a death penalty case is approximately a half million dollars higher than a case where the prosecution seeks a life sentence.
2.) Delay. With the automatic appeals and reviews that occur after a death penalty conviction, it is not unusual for a decade or longer to pass before sentence is finally carried out, and this process adds more expense.
3.) Life Without the Possibility of Parole means that the offender has decades to think about their horrendous crime every day for the rest of their lives.
4.) Survivor Fatigue. Stamper maintains that while the appeals process drags on, survivors have to relive the horror every day, in ways that frequently impugn the victim’s character, and they would prefer that the process just rather be over with than be offended by the system every day.
By way of rebuttal, Stamper almost has something with his first point, except there are larger issues to be considered. The justice system, at its core, essentially has two purposes: Keep the Peace, and Punish Wrongdoers. These are part of government’s rightful and legitimate duties, because if these two things are not done, you no longer have a society, you have anarchy. It is a sad fact that we already compromise on punishing wrong doing, and selectively prosecute certain crimes, and or often make deals to convict on lessor charges to avoid expense and conserve resources for “the worst of the worst”. Any benefit this confers on society is negligible, as whether by accident or design, it creates a permanent criminal underclass of repeat offenders, who when they actually serve real time, only end up becoming better criminals. This perpetuation prevents the real cost of law enforcement from sparking any serious consideration of whether or not the real problem might be too many laws, rather than an ever-increasing amount of “criminal behavior”.
The other part of this is that it ignores the cost of keeping that offender behind bars for the rest of their life if they really are “the worst of the worst”. As this presentation demonstrates, the average cost in 2005 per inmate in the State of Washington was $25,000.00. Multiply that by 45 years, and suddenly, you’ve sprung for $1,125,000.00 for the care and keeping of that inmate. And if you’re being honest, you recognize that this average is low, when you consider that the “worst of the worst” should be in maximum security at the least, and may be in solitary confinement most of that time. If you believe THAT cost is still only $25,000.00 a year per inmate, I have a bridge in Tacoma that I can sell you cheap.
As for the delay argument, it is a two-edged sword. It is a safeguard put in place with the intent of preventing the execution of those who were not guilty of the crime for which they were convicted, and in a society that it honest, honesty requires the recognition that sometimes, the system makes a mistake, and that when it is your life on the line, extra measures to make sure that the verdict was correct are in order. And when it is that serious, then maybe in the interests of fairness, it is to the benefit of all to provide extra process than what would ordinarily be due. But this cost should not be a deterrent to the existence of the penalty; some crimes are so heinous, some crimes are so beyond the pale, as to cast doubt upon the fitness of the offender to ever be trusted to live in society and conform to its norms and expectations. We know these people exist, and walk among us until they are caught, and we know they exist in the Pacific Northwest. When there is little reason to believe that they can ever be reformed or rehabilitated, especially in a system that cannot be said to make a priority of either, there should be no reason to burden society with the cost of keeping them alive, to perhaps some day, either be placed in a position where they can escape or be released to again be a danger to the society they are incapable of respecting.
The “punishment” of “having to think about their crimes and victims everyday for the rest of their lives” can hardly be believed to be a real punishment for such people. Indeed, John Carlson brought up the example of the offender who was incarcerated because of a truly brutal rape, wormed his way into the trust of prison officials, was eventually placed on an honor farm that he walked away from, to go back, and again brutally rape his victim, then slit her 5 year old daughter’s throat before her, kill the neighbor who stopped by (and who had also been the witness whose testimony had put him away to begin with) and then killed his victim. People like that aren’t “punished” by living with that knowledge for their rest of their lives. At best they do it and feel nothing; at worst, it inspires and arouses them.
Finally, Stamper presented his argument for what I call Survivor Fatigue, the gist of which is that the process of giving the death penalty offender extra process means that they have to relive the horror and loss every single day, and sometimes have to hear their lost loved one’s character impugned. The underlying rationale is that these people have a right to not endure this. What Chief Stamper does not recognize is that unlike the individual rights that he doesn’t favor us having, such as the right to be armed and to make the criminal suffer instead of yourself, the process of prosecuting a death penalty case isn’t about an individual’s rights, which may or may not be incidental, as we would like justice for the victim(s), but it is about the right of society to rid itself of those who have proven that they are incapable of coexisting within it without being a threat not just to the well-being, but the very lives of other members of it. This is why it is a legitimate power of the state as long as extra care is taken to make sure that the right people receive this punishment. As advances in science reveal the errors that the system has made, it also reveals that it is even more possible than before to convict the guilty, and remove the burden that sociopaths, psychopaths, and people who chose to not just kill, but to do so with extraordinary cruelty and abandon from anything recognizable to a civilized society. It is also possible that these advances will help to streamline the extra process, and expedite the departure of the monsters and animals that Chief Stamper would have us preserve indefinitely, taking up resources that could be used for others who might have a hope of redemption or a lack of interest in recidivism.
Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamities is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer!
–Thomas Paine, Common Sense.