A criminal-justice layperson, such as yours truly, could be forgiven for despairing of a sensible answer to the question of what to do with violent criminals.
The death penalty is barbaric, plain and simple. But locking people up in prison for life is cruel and, often, counterproductive – not to mention extremely overused; The New Yorker points out that “there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America – more than six million – than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.”
The more time passes, the more I doubt the United States will ever kill the death penalty. But at the same time, we will never fully accept it. The latest related news comes from a couple of different states. Connecticut’s State Senate voted 20-16 to repeal its death statute. Not a very big margin, but still, years ago I would have received the news as a positive nudge towards an ultimate outlawing of the practice, just as today state-by-state recognition of same-sex marriage seems to be pushing the country as a whole in the direction of equal rights. Meanwhile, California’s citizens are preparing to vote on a ballot initiative abolishing the death penalty there.
Death, however, is too complicated for simple convictions and assumed inevitabilities. It’s easy to frame an argument for equal rights. But it’s painfully difficult to argue for mercy for people guilty of heinous violence. And yet it’s equally hard to justify state-sponsored killing as a form of punishment. Logic fails on both sides.
We have a natural tendency to fetishize life per se as uniquely precious, but people interpret and apply those feelings in different ways, so, where life and death are concerned, disagreements become intractable. I remember trying to explain myself to a co-worker who was a devout Catholic and couldn’t understand how I could be opposed to the death penalty but in favor of abortion rights. The fact is, we interpreted or parsed the “sanctity” of life differently.
I’ve always been inclined to single out the teachings of Catholicism in this area as egregiously intolerant. But the truth is, those teachings are just codifications of basic human feelings. Life is a thing we instinctively cling to at all costs, death an impossibly deep mystery. Thus, matters of life and death are bound, in some people at least, to engender firmly held views that others might consider extreme.
I will continue to insist that we respect others’ convictions on these matters and refrain from trying to enshrine our personal religious beliefs in secular law. But at the same time, let’s try and keep a cool head when people insist on things that seem antithetical to what we ourselves believe. The plain fact is, our society may very well never figure this out. But a matter of life and death doesn’t have to be a matter of life and death.