Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Rant: Our System of (In) Justice, Part 2

I suppose we could look at the death penalty as an logical extension of prison. To reiterate, the purpose of prison is to:
  • Serve as a deterrent to the general populace
  • Serve as a personal deterrent to individuals already in prison who might otherwise commit future crimes
  • Punish the guilty (retribution or vengeance for the crime victim)
  • Rehabilitate the criminal
  • Protect the rest of the population (all of whom are without doubt angelic law abiding citizens) from the criminals
The death penalty does not serve as an effective deterrent to crime that is punishable by death. If it did, we wouldn't have a murder rate in the United States, and we do. In fact, the U.S. has a high murder rate. The death penalty does deter the commission of future crimes with one hundred percent effectiveness, and it serves as a stiff punishment (or vengeance, as the case may be. I note that certain Muslim countries – anything ending in 'stan' – allow the victim to serve as executioner in a public execution.). There isn't much rehabilitation that goes on with a death sentence, but that's to be expected. I don't really think the idea of rehabilitation of the criminal enters into the thinking of death penalty advocates, but I don't fault them for this. The death penalty has one unarguable success in that it protects the rest of society from the criminal in question. As a deterrent, the death penalty is a failure and I suspect I know the reason for this.

The effectiveness of a punishment does not rely on severity. The effectiveness relies on surety and immediacy. Consider the infamous red light camera for a minute. The way the red light camera system is supposed to work is pretty simple. If you run a red light a photo of your car (and license plate) is taken and a few weeks later you (the owner of the car) receive a bill for some significant amount of money from your local government. To avoid having to pay this, don't run the light. You'd think this would eliminate the problem of people running the red light, but it doesn't eliminate it entirely. People still run the light, and they do so because this behavior produces an immediate reward – they don't have to wait in traffic. I note that the punishment is not immediate, but it is sure and as a result the number of people running the red light in question is drastically reduced. Now then, in the case of violent crime punishable by death, the punishment is a very long way from being immediate. A prisoner can sit on death row for well over ten years before finally being executed. It isn't sure, either. Criminals who commit premeditated violent crime never believe that they'll be caught much less put to death. I wouldn't believe that the thought of punishment enters into the minds of spontaneous perpetrators either.

As I stated at the start of this little exertion in literary excellence, I support the death penalty. I subscribe to the idea that there are people in this world who do not deserve to live their life to a stately conclusion somewhere in their August years. In order to get the death deserving SOB from the county lock up to the firing squad in a relatively short time with an accurate guilty verdict will require a change in our legal system, and I'm fully aware that this is an understatement.

If the alleged perpetrator is found guilty at court and sentenced to death, rather than going through the usual appeal and stalling for time process that everyone endures today, just take the SOB out back and shoot him. Okay, frustration got the better of me there.

What is needed is a special panel of five judges whose job it is to:

  1. Ascertain that there is absolutely no possibility for an erroneous verdict.
  2. Make certain that the condemned is fit for execution. Executing minors, mentally ill people or the mentally retarded is not allowed.

If our five judges cannot unanimously declare that these conditions cannot be met, the sentence is changed from death by execution to life in prison without parole.

Should the panel of five change the sentence to life in prison, the various appeals in our cumbersome system can slowly fall into place as usual, and in 30 years or so the criminal will know for sure whether or not he'll spend the rest of his life in the poky. Alternately, if the condemned is still scheduled to become a useful part of the local landfill, the entire appeal process gets put on a fast track, meaning that other cases and supposedly oh-so-important business of the court can take a back seat until the fate of this prisoner is resolved. The goal here is to eliminate the lingering stay on death row as well as providing some sense of immediacy.

While I, personally, and in my own infinite wisdom believe this system would work better than the one we have, I don't believe for a second that any of these changes will ever come to pass or that, if the system were changed, violent crime would be reduced, which is supposedly one of the primary goals of criminal punishment. To reduce crime the system must provide immediate consequences every time the crime is committed.

Ask Officer Friendly how many criminals he has actually caught red-handed (excluding drunks) and the answer will most often be none. This is due to a phenomenon commonly referred to as the halo effect. The potential criminal sees Officer Friendly and adjusts his or her behavior so as to avoid arrest and subsequent detention by the State – immediately and absolutely. Ask Officer Friendly how much crime he has prevented, and the real answer is that he doesn't know, but we hope quite a bit. Were I to guess, I'd suspect that the officers presence has prevented a lot of crime, but no one will ever know for sure. The problem with this is obvious: the police can't be everywhere at once.

The real resolution here is to arm the citizens and encourage self-defense, but for reasons that have never been clear to me the mere thought of most people carrying a pistol causes widespread panic. An armed population does provide an effective deterrent to crime, as evidenced by crime statistics in any State that has permitted the carrying of a concealed weapon where such activity had previously been prohibited. Likewise the act of self-defense has often been criticized by law enforcement officers as “taking the law into your own hands”, although just what is wrong with that idea escapes me. I would suppose that I'm out of step with main stream society.

Returning to the two fictional women I created in Part 1 who are from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum as well as antipodal positions in the aesthetic gamut, until the justice system is able to treat them as equals in all respects, the death penalty is off the table. No more death penalty cases for the prosecutor. Moreover, I see both of these incidents as clear cut cases of self-defense (I know, it's easy for me because I made the whole thing up – it's my fiction, and I'm sticking to it) and I also believe that the amount of force used is an appropriate response to the attack. The police may not see it that way, but until they do the battered victims are pretty much hosed.

Although the playing field will never be completely level nor will the people in the justice system ever be completely, perfectly impartial (they are all people, and perfection eludes us) the law enforcement and justice system will have to improve, drastically and significantly, before the death penalty can be used as a punishment. When the death penalty is used, make certain that the reasoning for using it is clear to everyone concerned: We have here a person who is extremely dangerous to society and who we feel is beyond redemption. Take the SOB out and shoot him.

In the case of my “attractive white female dressed like a Sunday school teacher” victim, who we'll call Sarah Spider, our local homicide detective discovered that Sarah had completed three courses in self-defense shooting and practiced regularly with her revolver at a local range, that she had taken out an extra life insurance policy of one million dollars on her late husband (SOB One) and that she bought the Glaser safety slugs one week before the shooting. The jury found her not guilty because they just didn't believe someone who looked like her could murder her own husband.

In the case of my “poor twenty something minority with coarse features dressed in ragged sweats and sporting a few tattoos and piercings” victim, who we'll call Millie Margarita, our local homicide detective discovered that her husband (SOB Two) had a violent temper and a drinking problem. SOB Two bragged that he would get rid of Millie some day soon and marry his chick on the side. Meantime, Millie served him as his once a week ATM and general punching bag. The prosecutor and Millie's court appointed attorney convinced Millie that a plea bargain for first degree manslaughter was a good deal. Millie is doing 10 to 20 in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

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