Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Thoughts on: The Death Penalty

If you wandered over here from my youtube channel, you'll know that I have been uploading my favortive Penn and Teller Bullshit! episodes, most of which are of course a little controversial. However, of all the videos that I have uploaded, I never expected the one to get the most criticism, anger and violent comments to be the one on the death penalty.

I suppose growing up in Europe I figured, who can really be in favor of the death penalty, apart from crazy right-wingers? Sure that isn't to say that I couldn't imagine wanting someone who killed someone I love to die a slow and painful death, but that is personal anger and vengence, not something I would condone being the law of the land. When my house was broken in to and my things stolen I wished for a while that I had been in the house at the time waiting for those fuckers with a baseball bat, but the idea that the penalty by law for burglary could be pummeling someone with a piece of wood would horrify me.

Nevertheless, even allowing for a few trolls and crazies, the number of comments that were disgusted with the idea that the death penalty should be abolished was enormously high. I say trolls because I can only hope that a few, like the one that told me to get myself raped and murdered because of my dissenting opinion, or the one that said he could care less if innocent people were executed as they were acceptable collateral damage in a necessary process, were trolls. If not, that would be immensly depressing.

So, never knowing I would need to address this, it seems as though I should outline in full why I came to the conclusion that the US should get with the program and abolish the death penalty. No, it's not going to be for any lofty philosophical moral reasons. Whether or not you think it's wrong to execute someone is immaterial in this argument for the moment. It comes down to the fact that the most common arguments that are pro-death penalty are really just ways to rationalize a thirst for vengence on those who have harmed others. I want to leave personal feelings, which I don't think have a place in lawmaking, out for a while and address these "rationalizations" in turn.

1. Why spend money keeping this filth alive? Kill them and they will no longer be a burden on the state!!

Well, that one is pretty easy. States which have the death penalty, like California for example, have spent more money executing the people sentenced to death than it would have to keep them alive. If you think about it for a little bit, it really isn't that hard to understand why. People spend years on death row, they have the right to appeals, which have enormous trial costs associated with them. You also have to house them in a seperate part of the prison, you have to staff and manage that part of the prison, all of which increases the costs per prisoner enormously. Think of it like this: is it cheaper to cook dinner for 100 people, or cook dinner for 99 people but one of them has to eat a completely seperate meal?

So here people say well then forget the long appeals process and just kill them as soon as convicted, do away with death row end of story. Well, considering that over 100 people have been found to be innocent after being sentenced to death in the US you shouldn't be in favor of this at all, unless you actually do think that over 100 innocent lives are perfectly acceptable collateral damage to the justice system.

2. The death penalty acts as a deterrant for other criminals

Once again, the facts say otherwise. The US has much higher murder rates than other 1st world countries which don't have one. Even individual states within the US which have the death penalty tend to have higher murder rates than those without (see, so it's acting like a pretty shit deterrant.

3. It's justice for the families of the victim

OK, but life in prison isn't? Knowing that the monster that killed your loved one will rot in jail for the rest of their lives behind bars and die a lonely death in a cement block isn't? This argument is more difficult to understand because once again it falls back on personal feelings and opinion. There are many families that want the murderer that killed their loved one to be executed, and there are many who do not, it's not really feasible to base such a monumental law on this alone.

4. Life in jail or solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment, much better to put them to death

OK this one is absolutely ridiculous. You're saying that it's better for the criminal to be executed? Fine then, have an optional death penalty. Let the convict choose between being executed and life in prison. Actually, this is one death penalty that I could be completely in favor of.

That's the long and short of it anyway. Is there another point in this debate that I am missing? Let me know


  1. Bravo. I used to not be opposed to the death penalt because I did not particularly want the state (aka tax money) paying for the welfare of prisoners in very extreme cases of profound and repeated violence. Yes, yes, I know the state pays for a whole lot of bullshit; I'm not condoning those expenses either. Given that I was in error about that, I'm a lot more prone to rethink my position.

    An issue you didn't touch on, but could almost understandably be ignored, is that, at the moment, not all prisoners condemned to a life-sentence, or even multiple ones (What? O.o ) actually serve all their time. Obviously, this should be fixed in it's own right, and should not be sufficient reasoning to support the death penalty. Nevertheless, lack of faith in the system to actually keep the prisoners locked up is another reason for which some people support the death penalty.

    1. At least in the United States, this depends on the kind of sentence they receive. If you get "life without the possibility of parole" that's it, you rot in prison. If you get life WITH the possibility of parole, then after 25-30 years you might get a chance to get out. Slim, but it is there. Either way, it is very difficult for a person who would be sentenced to death would otherwise receive a sentence with the possibility of parole...

  2. Glad you included the argument about the comparative punishment of the death penalty and life in prison. I'm not sure which i think is worse, but i feel like most people would dismiss out of hand any argument that didn't have death as the worst of all possibilities.

  3. I agree with you, But again i feel like I can not trust the government to keep the actual scum in prison.

    1. In that same vein, can you trust the government to not execute innocent people?

  4. My thoughts on the matter, for me its a case of economics.

    I can't speak for people in 1st world countries but I'm from the Philippines a 3rd world developing nation with serious poverty issues. We're a democracy and have no death penalty, people in this country are naive wishful thinkers and it really shows as our country continues to make little progress, But I digress...

    My country needs the death penalty, in our country it simply makes no sense to spend money to keep criminals fed, clothed, sheltered and given medical attention for the remainder of their lives, while we look out on the streets and see innocent people homeless, sick and starving.

    You mentioned its actually cheaper to keep them alive? I disagree, it may be that way in your country where you go out of your way to make them comfortable during the entire process, but look at China for example, where its just a bullet to the head then they bill the family for the bullet end of story (I hear some cases its now lethal injection). If criminals have to suffer some pain then so be it, impoverished people are suffering too and we have priorities.

    If your country has the excess wealth to provide for your people and jail criminals forever then that's great, but consider this, the America today is knee deep in debt clearly as a result of unsustainable spending, and borrows money from the likes of China then goes about railing on them about their human rights and environmental issues... sounds awfully hypocritical to me. (The EU seems to be in its own financial crisis as well.)

    China to me is a model of any developing nation, they have their priorities straight by minimizing spending and managing to pull 200 million people out of poverty in the span of a few decades. They're probably guilty of killing thousands of criminals and knowing China some were probably even innocent but we can't argue with their results, despite the problems that remain they gave 200 MILLION people livelihoods, the ability to put a roof over their heads and food on their plates. Cruel and cold as I may sound saying this but thousands of lives as collateral simply does not compare to millions of lives saved.

    Meanwhile in my country we care about everyone's freedom and everyone's rights and oh so devout to Christian values that we forget about practicality and just let people suffer and die in poverty while we kiss the Bible and refuse execute anyone for anything, on top of that we also refuse to industrialize lest we risk damage to our precious environment, let the people starve as long as the trees are okay and our morals unblemished. Sorry I guess I was ranting on more than just the death penalty there, now I do realize there's more issues than just the death penalty that contributes to economy and of course implementing the death penalty will not just suddenly fix our economic issues, but it WILL help and my point is that people are being naive instead of practical.

    You mentioned innocent people as collateral damage from executing criminals, well think about collateral damage in the form of one innocent person that we let starve for every one criminal that we instead allocate limited resources to provide for.

    1. It is cheaper in the States to keep them alive (which would mean that, if its only an economic issue, your argument about the US's crippling debt should be an argument for abolishing the death penalty), and I would need to see the numbers to see how economically it would be different in other countries. You can make the death penalty cheaper, but at the cost of the rights of the person and, of course, innocent lives lost.

      I dont see how your argument of innocent people starving has anything to do with the death penalty. I honestly doubt that extreme poverty and starvation will be circumvented by instituting the death penatly, you can take a gander over at how well that's going in many African countries for that matter. Also I've seen the inside of Philippino prisons, my good friend's mother even worked as a prison guard there and you better believe the conditions in there indicate how very little money is spent on inmates.

      The problems in the Philippines are entirely different to the ones in the US, and I think that hanging your hat on the death penalty as a problem solver is what is naive. You can look to other countries again to see what are tried and tested methods of really reducing crime and bringing a country back to its feet, thus reducing poverty in the country. A significant investment in education, opening up the young population to more opportunities. Concentrating on rehabilitation of criminals rather than dehumanization. Look at the leaps forward Liberia has taken with this approach. In Europe, look at the rates of recidivism in Scandinavian countries compared to countries like the US. It is not to deny that criminality in the Philippenes is not a serious issue, but it is to say that the death penalty, most likely, is not the answer to these problems.

      Final note: you should be glad that the Christian approach theyve decided to take is a non-violent one. There's a whole lot of stoning, flogging and burning alive in that book that could have lead a Bible-morality-based code of law in an entirely different direction.

    2. Just to be clear I am referring to criminals whom would normally deserve capital punishment, so I'm not referring to pickpockets and the like whom I do believe we can afford rehabilitation as they can still be reintegrated as productive members of society.

      In regards to capital punishment life imprisonment or death penalty, I was just pointing out the obvious, in a simple example if you have a murderer and an innocent person but can only provide a meal for one of them you give it to the innocent. I can find no justification for feeding a murderer while innocent people starve.

      As I previously pointed out I am not so naive as to believe the death penalty would fix everything it is merely one of many ways that we can reduce spending, so that resources can be better allocated towards more important things, and given the stakes I believe we should be doing everything that we can to ensure every cent is allocated in terms of priority.

      You pointed out a significant investment in education as a solution, I'll tell you now that's not the only one, we also need investment in infrastructure, our energy sector is badly lacking the list goes on and on... but as you pointed out yourself we need to make a significant investment...

      ...and investments require funds.

      The following is probably off topic just a response to your final note :

      I honestly can't say I'm glad about the Christian approach, there should be separation of church and state regardless of religion. In Africa the lie spread by the church that condoms increase spread of STDs most notably AIDS has caused the deaths of many, wether by violence or by lies in the end dead is dead.

      And that very same lie is still being spread even here in the Philippines, used as a reason to block the "Reproductive Health Bill" which essentially provides contraceptives to the poor to prevent spread of diseases and unwanted children that the parents cannot provide for.

      Just because it could be worse doesn't make it better, I hear they actually do use flogging in Singapore and apparently its pretty effective.

    3. If youre a reader of my blog you would no perfectly well that I do not condone religion in politics in any shape or form, I was simply pointing out the irony that it is the Christians who think the death penalty is wrong in your country.

      And yes, they flog in Singapore, and I guess its effective if you are OK with living in that kind of environment. A 20-odd yr old kid was sentenced to 21 lashes there a few years ago for spray painting, and we're talking split-the-back-open-scarred-for-life-if-you-dont-die-from-blood-loss lashes. I wouldnt be OK with that in my country, but thats my opinion. I also wouldnt be OK with the death sentence for pot that they have over there either. It may be effective, but I think it's ridiculous. Singapore is a small country with plenty of money, enough to provide its citizens with a good standard of living (except of course the one neighborhood that consistently votes for the opposition) while maintaining very strict control over the public's actions and the media sources they are exposed to (satellites being illegal, but the enormous number of channels provided by their one and only cable makes it so the risk of getting an illegal satellite does not outweigh the potential benefits). These parameters are fundemental to Singapore's "success", you can't just introduce flogging for stupid little crimes in a country without proper infrastructure and expect the same results. Personally I would hate to live in such a 1984-like state, but that's just me, you are free to move there if you choose.

      All this to say that the experiments have been done, the results are in, and simply instating harsh punishments does nothing to reduce crime - and ultimately you will save money on prisons if you effectively reduce the number of people you have to put in there.

    4. I didn't mean to suggest that you support religious involvement in politics, I was merely responding that I don't find Christian morals to be any consolation for religious meddling.

      In regards to Singapore, well I don't know about scarring but they do actually have a doctor on site to check between lashes so there's actually no risk of dying through blood loss, and unless I'm mistaken there is actually an option to be imprisoned rather than face the whip, its just that most people would rather take the lashes over prolonged imprisonment. Seems hardly productive to waste away in prison for months or years, not that I would commit such crimes but if I did, I would much rather be whipped than lose a significant portion of my life and come out to a world I know longer recognize after several years. Anyway I'm pretty sure society would rather see me working the next day rather than mooching off tax payers money for the next few years.

      My focus is the economic cost, I honestly can't imagine how the U.S. manages to make the act of shooting someone up with lead or poison more expensive than the cost of feeding and caring for them for the next 50 or so years of their lives, but believe me executing them doesn't cost nearly that much in other countries.

      Like I said from the start, I can't speak for the U.S. but the Death Penalty is indeed practical in many other countries that can't afford to throw money away. Well technically the U.S. can't afford to throw money away either but if they do it anyway ballooning the debt the cost of their own future, that's their decision.

      I'm just putting out another perspective on this issue that the death penalty still has a place in other parts of world, where it is practical and certainly more beneficial than shouldering the cost of life imprisonment.

    5. Just on a side note, I don't really argue on the point of deterrence because there is no conclusive evidence to back it up.

      I do however feel the need to respond to your statement "results are in" in regards to deterring crime. No they aren't...

      Firstly "Correlation does not imply causation" you may have noticed Penn and Teller themselves use that scientific fact in their other episodes against the position they oppose.

      But that aside there here are the other positions on this matter taken from Wikipedia :

      One reason that there is no general consensus on whether or not the death penalty is a deterrent is that it is used so rarely - only about one out of every 300 murders actually results in an execution. In 2005 in the Stanford Law Review, John J. Donohue III, a law professor at Yale with a doctorate in economics, and Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote that the death penalty "... is applied so rarely that the number of homicides it can plausibly have caused or deterred cannot reliably be disentangled from the large year-to-year changes in the homicide rate caused by other factors... The existing evidence for deterrence... is surprisingly fragile." Wolfers stated, "If I was allowed 1,000 executions and 1,000 exonerations, and I was allowed to do it in a random, focused way, I could probably give you an answer."

      Naci Mocan, an economist at Louisiana State University, authored a study that looked at all 3,054 U.S. counties over two decades, and concluded that each execution saved five lives. Mocan stated, "I personally am opposed to the death penalty... But my research shows that there is a deterrent effect."

      Joanna M. Shepherd, a law professor at Emory with a doctorate in economics who was involved in several studies on the death penalty, stated, "I am definitely against the death penalty on lots of different grounds... But I do believe that people respond to incentives." Shepherd found that the death penalty had a deterrent effect only in those states that executed at least nine people between 1977 and 1996. In the Michigan Law Review in 2005, Shepherd wrote, "Deterrence cannot be achieved with a half-hearted execution program."

      Now I personally believe it is a deterrence but that's just my opinion. However as far as actual studies, or lack thereof, I think only thing we can conclude at this point is that the effect of death penalty as a deterrence is inconclusive.

      To suggest otherwise would be disingenuous.

    6. Correlation does not prove causation, but that would only apply to this if I were trying to make the case that having the death penatly has the opposite to a deterrant effect, and I'm not making that case at all - there is no evidence to back that up. What I am saying is that the numbers show the opposite of what you would expect if it were a real deterrant. Also the US is not the only country with a death penalty you know, you can look at other countries which execute far more often for far lesser crimes to look at what happens when the death penalty is used very frequently.

      The fact is that there is this common misconception that the vast majority of murder cases are meticulously planned out with all the pros and cons calculated before hand - that is often not the case. Also it's not like the options are "death penalty" or "nothing", life in prison is a very bleak alternative, not a punishment that many will take lightly as if it were no punishment at all.

      Anyway the point is that the numbers and statistics not just in the states but around the world are not what you would expect if the death penalty was a real deterrent compared to life in prison. that does not mean that the death penalty makes for a society more likely to commit murder, because that would be making an argument from correlation-proves-causation, but the two points are very different.

    7. Quoting you

      "What I am saying is that the numbers show the opposite of what you would expect if it were a real deterrant."

      Yes I agree, but that in itself does not prove that it isn't a deterrent either. This is one of those things that its one or the other, it either deters people or it doesn't, bottomline is we still don't know, and until we do I don't think you can factually make a statement that we know it isn't a deterrent.

      The whole point of "Correlation-causation" is that true cause could possibly be attributed to other factors other than the one in question, therefore we cannot come to a conclusion unless all other factors are controlled for.

      Hence the results aren't in yet, its inconclusive.

      I think this quoted earlier from Wikipedia best explains this problem.

      "the number of homicides it can plausibly have caused or deterred cannot reliably be disentangled from the large year-to-year changes in the homicide rate caused by other factors... The existing evidence for deterrence... is surprisingly fragile." Wolfers stated, "If I was allowed 1,000 executions and 1,000 exonerations, and I was allowed to do it in a random, focused way, I could probably give you an answer."

      I don't think anyone would ever allow such an experiment, so unless people figure out another way to scientifically prove it, the jury is still out on that.

      Some people would rather live than die and some people would rather die than lose their freedom, I'm pretty sure everyone fears torture but I guess that would be inhumane. It's hard to debate on other peoples feelings and inclinations.

      Which is why the basis for my argument is the economic cost, since its something we can actually quantify.

  5. I think that most reasons people give for justifying the Death Penalty are silly, as there is only one real reason for such a sentence.

    When faced with a violent offender (forced rape, murder, child molestation, etc.) who has demonstrated (through either one extremely heinous act, or many) that they are of such a mindset that they will continue such behavior if freed, either through parole or escape; The only way to ensure there is no re-offense is execution.

    That is the bottom line. It should not be about money, or 'cruelty',deterrent, vengeance, or religion.

    You must accept that death is a part of humanity, and that people will do evil on one another.

    The only recourse is complete removal from existence. As gruesome as that may be.

    1. I don't have to agree with that at all. I don't understand why so many people also try to justify their support of the death penalty with "parole or escape", as if it is inevitable that a murderer will be released eventually, that is not the case. Some people that commit murder are allowed out on parole (which depends on the circumstances of the murder itself, and such people are not the ones that would receive the death penalty anyway), but "life without parole" is a perfectly reasonable and often used alternative. Despite what tv shows tell you it is an extremely rare occurence for someone to successfully escape from a maximum security prison, people don't just walk out whenever they feel like it. It is a less rare occurrence (in the US) for an innocent person to be given the death penalty, and I cannot support such a fundementally flawed system.

      I would also suggest a prison system similar to that in Italy: seperate prisons for those convicted with life sentences and those who need to be rehabilitated because they will be released back into society, but thats a whole other can of worms for another day

    2. Well, I guess then we have to agree to disagree, as I see such criminals unfit for life.