Monday, December 15, 2008

Life in Maryland

A legislative commission in Maryland has recommended that the state abolish capital punishment. This report cites several reasons to drop the death penalty, including racial disparity, jurisdictional disparity, substantially higher costs (yes, as opposed to life in prison), detrimental effects on victims' families, the risk of executing an innocent person, and no evidence of deterrence.

There are lots of reasons to be against the death penalty. There is exactly one reason to be for it: believing in the retributive justice of "an eye for an eye". I have little to say to people of non-Christian faiths, or no faith, who support the death penalty for this reason, other than to reiterate all the practical problems with capital punishment (Jews who support capital punishment should read this).

But to my fellow Jesus-followers who support, or are ambivalent about capital punishment, I'd issue this challenge: You have placed your faith in violence and revenge rather than in the Jesus who taught us to forgive our enemies, who flatly rejected "eye for an eye" thinking, and who died to save even (or especially) the worst of us. Who is not willing that any should perish. Who begged for forgiveness for his killers, while they were killing him. Repent.

I hope the state legislature of Maryland listens to this recommendation. Last year New Jersey abolished capital punishment. There is momentum to end this cycle of revenge and violence, even in the South. Let's pray for grace in violent times.


Mike said...

Good thoughts, Travis. I'm interested to hear any facts on the cost of life in prison versus the cost of capital punishment. It seems that is a popular argument within my traffic patterns of life.

Travis Greene said...

It's a common objection, and it's understandable. It's counter-intuitive that life in prison is cheaper than the death penalty, but it's true. In NC, for instance, defendants charged capitally are entitled to 2 lawyers, compared to 1 for capital cases. That makes court costs at least twice as expensive right off the bat (it's easy to scoff at the state paying for this until you remember the presumption of innocence and the fact that poor folks are entitled to the same justice that rich folks are). And they're professionally and constitutionally required to do much more work than in a noncap case.

I guess one could argue that death penalty cases should require no more resources than non-death penalty cases, but that seems awfully cavalier about life. The courts have repeatedly (and quite rightly) decided that the death penalty requires a much higher degree of deliberation. Capital trials take many times as long as non-capital trials. Appeals can go on for years (and we wouldn't want them not to, given how many death sentences are subsequently commuted to life anyway, not to mention the people found totally innocent).

The point is, in a noncapital murder case, you lock them up and throw away the key. They get one more appeal on the state's dime, and then that's pretty much it. People on death row are (and again, should be) entitled to much more careful scrutiny, endless appeals, that the taxpayers pay for up to and including petitioning governors for clemency.

It's simply not worth the trouble, even if you agree with its aims. Let's spend that money on more police and other programs to prevent crime in the first place.

One of the reasons Maryland is considering abolishing the DP, for instance, is that given the costs of having the death penalty on the books and the relatively small number of actual sentences carried out, MD taxpayers paid $37.2 million for each of the 5 executions they've carried out since 1972. Does that seem like a good use of resources?

More info:

Travis Greene said...
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Travis Greene said...

Here's an article on New Jersey since they got rid of capital punishment. Basically, it hasn't affected their ability to prosecute murders at all.

Bear in mind that laws vary state to state, so some of their specific sentences are different than what someone would get in NC or FL. Line up a map of executions and a map of the Confederacy, and you'll see why.

Mike said...

Thanks for that information - good insight as I dive into conversations with others. Think about an America with no death penalty - do you think that the protection of life from capital punishment could lead to negative things such as protection so extreme that it criminalizes those that would excercise self-defense, say, after killing an intruder? Assuming you would see that as a negative, that is.

Travis Greene said...

Well, I think if we're really following Christ in the most radical way we can, we wouldn't defend ourselves against an intruder (Jesus never said it'd be easy). Whether Christians can use violence to defend others is an old debate about which I think folks can reasonably disagree, although I'm becoming more and more of a pacifist. But that's a matter of Christian ethics, not American law. The law absolutely recognizes self-defense as justifiable homicide, and I seriously doubt that will ever change. It's hard enough to convince a majority of people that we shouldn't execute the mentally retarded.

Morally, I think there's a huge difference between using lethal force to prevent a crime like murder (a decision made in a split second), and calmly and deliberately pumping someone full of poison or electricity until they die, even though it changes absolutely nothing about what they did. I have the greatest sympathy for those who have had family members murdered. I can't imagine how horrific that would be. But protecting life through execution, as Derek Webb memorably puts it, is like purity by way of fornication.