The false hope of the death penalty

Pop Quiz: What do Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and the United States have in common?

They all systematically kill citizens who break the law.

Of course they aren’t alone. Sudan, Uganda, Pakistan and Swaziland are our fellow compatriots in this ghastly fraternity of 70 countries.

The goal of institutional punishment is part correction, part restitution, and part community protection. Violators of the law are subject to sanctions in an attempt to dispense justice, that is to correct the wrong committed in a meaningful way, prevent it from happening again, and in the process remove harmful individuals from society.

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the death penalty is not an appropriate punishment for the rape of a child. This ruling reflects largely what the judicial process of our nation has already decided. As the article in the Times states,  “Not since 1964 has anyone been executed in the United States for a crime other than murder.”

While I happen to oppose the death penalty unilaterally, the idea of killing child rapists sounds appealing at first glimpse. The despicable nature of the crime and the irreparable harm done to children causes something in my normally peace-loving nature to cry out with vengeance with the mob.  But this knee-jerk reaction is short-sided. What I really want is assurance that this won’t happen ever again, or, at the very least, it will occur with far less frequency.

Systematically killing the perpetrators one by one sounds like the literal way to eliminate the problem and “protect” our children. But if preventing child rape is really what this debate is about, then the death penalty shouldn’t even be a consideration. New Orleans and Houston rank as the second and fifteenth leading cities for murder. Louisiana and Texas also rank among the highest in number of executions per state.

Since 1976, Texas has executed four times more inmates than the next leading state, Virginia, and four hundred times that of Wyoming. It’s painfully clear that the death penalty fails to deter crime. While several cities in Texas have less crime (Austin, Plano), that likely has more to do with the socioeconomic status of residents than the deterring factor of the death penalty. As the Death Penalty Information Center reports, “The murder rate in non-death penalty states has remained consistently lower than the rate in states with the death penalty, and the gap has grown since 1990.”

I oppose the death penalty not only on moral grounds, but because it fails to prevent crime. Instead of thinking of harsher punishments, we need to ask ourselves is why are grown men raping children? Where has our society failed? How can we address the root of this problem instead of reacting to the end result? These questions may be harder to answer, but they are the ones that will actually save lives.

I believe the true impetus behind capital punishment is far less noble than the call of justice or the desire to protect children. We want revenge. We want to inflict pain on others to make them feel as badly as their victims did. This isn’t exactly a foreign concept. It’s human nature at its worst, and, if left unchecked, it will result in breeding hatred and, ironically, crime. We already lock up more than 2 million of our own citizens—the most in the world. Our great love affair with punishment may look prettier than the public hangings of our forefathers, but it’s no less uncivilized.

Amnesty International reports that 135 countries have abolished the death penalty—countries like Norway, Sweden, Italy, France, and Australia. If you ask me, they make far better bedfellows than our current company.