You’ve Got To Go To The Lonesome Valley


Nice company we’ve got there. Click for a larger image; found atprisonpolicy.org.

So I’m sure everyone’s readthis New Yorker article about Cameron Todd Willingham. If you haven’t, please do. It’s some sad, sad shit. Basically, the state of Texas almost certainly killed an innocent man in 2004.

A friend sent methis article from Salon the other day; like most Salon articles lately, it really pissed me off. Go ahead, read it. I’ll wait.

Back yet? Good.

Now, I
agree with what he says, but, in this fucking country, you can’t make
statistical inferences like that. There’s always some yahoo who stands
up and yells about “proof,” as if such a concept even existed in these
cases.

The
simple fact is that, in America, you’ll have to conclusively
demonstrate that an innocent person has gotten whacked by the state
before you can bring more people on board with opposing the death
penalty.
However,
even if you do manage to build an air-tight case about an innocent
person getting executed, there are hordes of people who will ignore
that case, or say that the evidence isn’t good enough, or they’ll find
some other way to move the goalposts.
Death-penalty
advocates, by and large, don’t care about justice. Justice is the
concept of the fair and equitable treatment of all individuals under
the law; it is built on the notion that there are socially prohibited
behaviors, and violation of those prohibitions, once demonstrated in an
unbiased fashion, will result in socially agreed-upon sanctions.
Justice is built on fact and reason. Death-penalty advocates, on the
other hand, care about vengeance. Vengeance is usually (though, it
should be noted not necessarily) an emotional response. It’s a
reciprocation of perceived wrongs. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a
tooth, and “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” The advocates of
capital punishment believe in it for emotional and quasi-religious
reasons, not rational ones. You can cite reams of facts about the
death penalty being unfairly applied by race or class. Doesn’t
matter. Same with the fact that it doesn’t actually deter crime. Or
that death penalty cases cost the state, on average, four times as much
as life imprisonment. Those are all facts. But facts don’t matter
when you’re dealing with an irrational position.
The
same logic, such as it is, applies when you’re talking about
homosexuality, or contraception, or abortion, or gun control, or any of
the core “social conservative” causes.
This
is not to say that all death-penalty opponents are shining beacons of
rational Enlightenment principles. You will find plenty of emotional
appeals on their side, as well. However, the anti-execution position
also includes the aforementioned facts. There really aren’t any
factual justifications for execution in a modern state.

11 thoughts on “You’ve Got To Go To The Lonesome Valley

  1. karen marie says:

    Ain’t it lovely how “deterrence” is good for “the little people” but not for criminals like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al?

  2. pansypoo says:

    the company we keep.

  3. The Other Sarah says:

    well, to be fair, if we could do so I’d like to see us put the entire Bush administration in prison, and if we could put Cheney on death row that would be gravy, actually.
    But to get back to the point about deterrence:
    In at least one case the deterrence is permanent and irrevocable. I do not speak of vengeance here. I speak of preventing another incident of criminal behavior by a convicted felon. I maintain that in some cases, you have exactly the same obligation to protect society from a convicted felon that you have to protect society from a rabid animal.
    To really understand this, though, you have to also know that I live in Texas and I am well aware of exactly how crappy our “criminal justice” system is in this state. What happened to Cameron Todd Willingham should never have happened; I blame at least in part our “tough on crime” GOP, headed up by Rick Perry trying to follow in w’s footsteps.

  4. hoppy says:

    Part of the problem with discussing the death penalty and sentences in general is that people now have an incorrect idea about what “justice” is, in terms of the US Constitution. Justice is something between society and an offender, not in any way between a victim and an offender. Politicians like to talk about bringing justice to the victim or the victim’s family, but that is nonsense. Justice means that society is “made whole” by a sentence, not that a victim or his family gets revenge.
    Too often the argument that carries the day is that John was deprived of his remaining years of life, so how can we let the offender who took those years from him have his own life left to him to live? That is a vengeful argument, not a justice argument. The justice argument is that the offender should receive a punishment that is appropriate, that will discourage him from offending again, and will serve as a deterrent to others who might otherwise offend. A totally different concept.
    With a correct concept of justice we would not have the long prison sentences we how have, except for truly horrendous crimes by utter sociopaths, who should be in prison for life. Take Bernard Madoff for example: he didn’t kill anyone, he didn’t torture anyone, nor attack anyone. He simply stole some money from a lot of people. He should, as a result, have to pay restitution to the limit of his total assets, and serve a prison sentence of 5 years or so. That would be justice.
    I could go on and on, but I won’t.

  5. hoppy says:

    Yes, I will go on a little longer: The other aspect to prison sentences is that they should be something no one would want to risk. Today prisoners get to watch TV, listen to the radio, use exercise equipment, use computers, use cell phones, etc. None of those things should be allowed to prisoners. Being in prison should mean being in austere surroundings, with enough food to live, but no meal that anyone would ever look forward to. It should mean no entertainment. It should mean no contact with the outside world, other than a lawyer or other officer of the court. Any time not spent idling away the time in a cell should have to be spent studying to better oneself. But, at the same time, no prisoner should ever live in fear of his fellow convicts, whether that is fear of physical attacks or sexual attacks. That, to me, is an absolute requirement.

  6. Today prisoners get to watch TV, listen to the radio, use exercise equipment, use computers, use cell phones, etc.
    Other than the Constitutional arguments, which I’ll let better women and men argue, I’ll just point out that in our overburdened penal system the uses of such are seen as means to keep the populations tame. Especially by the for-profit corporations that keep expanding their business.
    Y’know as in, “tame – they’re only assaulting one another, rather than rioting, killing guards and trying to break out regularly.”
    Read Jimmy Lerner’s You Got Nothing Coming, http://www.amazon.com/You-Got-Nothing-Coming-Prison/dp/0767909186

  7. MapleStreet says:

    Personally, I am anti-death penalty but willing to admit that there are some who are so whatever that we can’t keep others safe from them even in a lock-down environment. (Pee Wee Gaskins comes to mind. Read his book sometime).
    Feeding into this, I look at all the so-called rapists who have been duly convicted and then exhonerated by later evidence; not to mention the states that refuse to overturn their conviction despite explicity clear dna evidence.
    For juveniles, I agree that they have not come up with understanding of their actions (as opposed to the Bush Cabal who knew exactly what they were doing).
    But as a counter argument, I also see too many cases of young juveniles doing rather henious crimes. We have to develop some way of dealing with these folks also.

  8. Interrobang says:

    Today prisoners get to watch TV, listen to the radio, use exercise equipment, use computers, use cell phones, etc. None of those things should be allowed to prisoners.
    I disagree, on the grounds that the point of a correctional system is ostensibly supposed to be so that a) offenders are released into the general population at large once they’ve finished their prison terms, and b) recidivism is a bad thing.
    If you create conditions that are borderline inhumane to the extent the law permits, you are making it more likely that a cohort of prisoners will be psychologically damaged by the experience, which means you’ll be releasing mentally ill or traumatised people on the other end (with all of the sequelae that that entails, including increased mental healthcare costs and law enforcement), and, by making the prison experienceso different from life on the outside, you will also be increasing the likelihood that long-term prisoners will become unable to function on the outside after their release, and will reoffend simply so they can return to their habitual environment. I don’t think any of those things are desireable outcomes.
    Also, as far as I’m concerned, the idea that prison has to be some kind of extremely unpleasant monastic ordeal isalso a vengeance-not-justice argument, and I disagree on those grounds, too.
    Then again, I’m Canadian and our corrections system provides mandatory education and job-skills classes, and our recidivism rate is much lower than in the US. In part, I think that’s attributable to the fact that in Canada, inmatescan vote in all elections, andnobody loses the franchise. (Cutting off a vital part of one’s citizenship, that is, one’s connection to the social contract, is a high predictor of future criminality, in that a person who isn’t invested in the social contract has no reason to obey it.)

  9. hoppy says:

    Interrobang, you have a very valid argument. My whole idea starts with sentences being reduced to 5 or fewer years for almost any offence. No question that anyone who is forced to live in austere surroundings for 20 years is a badly damaged individual. But, a year in a monastic setting is a free choice taken by many people, so it cannot be considered to be extreme punishment, or revenge. It just has to be an experience that no one would ever want to repeat. No sugar, no salt, no fats, perhaps no meat, no spices (think vegetarian). No pre-1950 type entertainment (did we all become maniacs from that?) No body building. And, limited social contacts with other prisoners – I can see something like 50 prisoner cell blocks, with contacts limited to those 50.
    Prison time is a punishment, not a training session, nor a retreat. The training, schooling, etc. should be before or after prison, not during it.

  10. BuggyQ says:

    Whatever any of us may think of the death penalty, I would hope that we could all agree that killing *juveniles* is a bad idea. It’s one thing to give the ultimate punishment to a thinking, reasoning adult. But a juvenile is, by definition, not a thinking, reasoning adult. (Especially the thinking, reasoning part–the teenage years are a nightmare to get through even under the best of circumstances…)

  11. hoppy says:

    I certainly agree that juveniles should never be executed, nor, in my opinion, should they receive extremely long prison sentences. If we have even a shred of a belief in rehabilitation as a prison goal, then who could possibly be a better candidate for rehabilitation than a juvenile? I find it highly offensive that so often a serious crime results in charging even 14 year olds as adults. That is barbaric, and should be “unAmerican”.

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