I wanted to take a short second to discuss the other death penalty: life without parole (LWOP).
It’s a sentence more aptly called “death in prison” or “death by prison”.
I bring this up because individuals who are anti-death penalty usually hold those positions on moral grounds (unless it is the death penalty for babies), of course. However, the alternative is far from the moral option.
We sentence most lifers to solitary confinement.
Take The Marshall Project on the subject of solitary confinement:
Research has confirmed that even brief periods in solitary alter brain chemistry and produce psychiatric symptoms ranging from extreme depression to active psychosis.
Some prisoners who have spent longer amounts of time in isolation describe it as a condition that slowly degrades both their humanity and sanity, turning them into blind animals given to interminable pacing, smearing their cells with feces, or engaging in self-mutilation.
Or from Brian Nelson who spent 12 years in solitary confinement:
I went days pacing back and forth like a zombie…I looked like I was already dead and I had no will to live. Day after day all I saw was gray walls and over time my world became the gray box.
Every day I went to sleep I got down on my knees and prayed that I would die in my sleep, yet God’s will was not mine. When I woke up in the night I prayed harder for death.
Or William Blake who is in solitary confinement for life for being a cop killer:
If I try to imagine what kind of death, even a slow one, would be worse than twenty-five years in the box—and I have tried to imagine it—I can come up with nothing.
Dying couldn’t take but a short time if you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths.
Life without parole in solitary confinement is merely a means of indefinite torture stated as a means of virtue (saving their life, not killing). A moral society is not one that allows the monsters it creates to live indefinitely in a small, tortuous space.
This is not the virtuous option. It is probably the most tortuous option, even more so than a person being sentenced to torture itself. At least the torture would have to end after a set period.
A just society can’t allow them to walk amongst the public, either. Or leave them in the general population of a prison.
Because no person should have to pay taxes to house, feed, and re-educate a criminal that has caused significant harm to their family. If someone murdered your mother, is it just for the government to force you to pay taxes that go toward letting them live their life in general population within a prison?
Why should society have to front the costs for these people? Is that just, is that virtuous? That an evil person gets to relax, not work, receive free food, and take part in betterment programs for the rest of their life?
With solitary confinement, we are the ‘bad guys’ torturing an individual far past a reasonable verdict or sentence. With ‘LWOP in the general population’, the victims receive no justice or closure. Both options are wrong.
And for many of these crimes, there is no rehabilitation. You cannot rehabilitate someone that commits a serious, death penalty warranting offense such as serial killers or terrorists.
So torture is not an ethical option, and neither is leaving them in general population. We cannot release them for risk to society or rehabilitate them either.
What can we do?
The humane option. Which is the death penalty.
The death penalty provides closure to the individuals harmed. It ensures the criminal is not being tortured for a lifetime while also ensuring he/she receives justice. And, if done correctly, it reduces the fiscal impact on the society.
Housing, feeding, paying correctional officers, and financing related staff is expensive. It goes down a lot if there are fewer people.
In 2017, nearly one out of every nine people in prison were serving a life sentence. That’s 162,000 people. 44,311 individuals were serving “virtual life” sentences (50 years +). So over 200,000 people or 13.9% of the entire prison population were serving life. One out of every seven.
Between these lifers and people serving in prison for non-violent or low-class drug-related offenses, it is no wonder why we’re the world leader in incarceration rates and see billions in expenses related to this mess. Reducing this expense while remaining a virtuous society should be a priority.
People that are anti-death penalty are frequently vocal about the costs associated with getting a death penalty enacted. They state it is more expensive than sentencing a person to life in prison.
Isn’t that insane? Housing, feeding, medical costs, and all related expenses for an entire life is cheaper than fighting through the bureaucracy we have set up.
It is expensive because of how this system is set up with the courts today. It doesn’t cost much to have a death penalty. A single Federal .22 round costs about 17 cents. Hell, it would cost zero if you would just ask me for one. But a death penalty sentence costs a median amount of $1.26 million dollars.
This is a flaw with the system, not the reasonable costs of death. A reformed death penalty system could drastically lower these costs for those sentenced to death, while also providing the other benefits against solitary confinement or general population described above. The death penalty is the moral option. Fix the dysfunctional system, don’t ban the practice. That is the progress we need.