Tuesday, August 30, 2016

On the death penalty

Jeff Jacoby puts together a string of anecdotal evidence suggesting that indeed, there is a deterrent effect to the death penalty.  While this is significant--anecdotally if not statistically--there remains the question of what deterrent effect would justify the possibility of a wrongful execution.

Now the logic here is macabre, of course, but it's unavoidable; if there is indeed a deterrent effect to any punishment, from a $10 fine to Old Sparky or hanging, and especially if murder is involved, you are talking about the social cost of dead innocents.  So we might argue that if the presence of the death penalty is justified if the overall number of murders drops by more than the number of innocents executed.

We quail at that, but if sheer number of grieving families is our goal, that might be our conclusion, no?  But of course, since we are "wielding the knife", we might say that we'd rather have ten, a hundred, or a thousand innocents die before executing an innocent man...especially in light of the fact that, as things stand, it takes millions of dollars (the work product of another innocent life squandered) to execute a criminal. 

What we ought not say, however, is that the ratio is infinite--that we simply eliminate the death penalty if there is a risk of a single innocent being executed--because there is no such thing as zero likelihood.  Punish perjury and suppression of evidence?  You bet.  Harshly.  But let's not forget that the death penalty is Biblical, and that there is evidence out there that criminals modify their behavior to avoid it.

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