The Death Penalty

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – Texas on Wednesday (August 10, 2011) executed a man for killing two gang rivals in a shooting that happened shortly after he had served time for another homicide.

Once again, we have killed a man to show that killing is wrong.  In fact, the State of Texas executes more people than any other State and plans to execute five more during September.  Martin Robles was thirty-three years old and was the ninth man executed in Texas in 2011.

Our fascination with the death penalty has no factual basis.  It has been well documented that it costs more to execute a person than to imprison him for life when the cost of appeals are considered.  It is impossible to prove that the death penalty is a deterrent because you can’t determine who intended to kill someone but decided not to because of the threat of execution.  It is true that a person who has been executed can’t commit another crime against society, but the same can be said for a person incarcerated for life.  Our criminal justice system has more problems than the death penalty, however.

We incarcerate people of color at a disproportionate rate.  We also execute them at a disproportionate rate.  What’s more, studies indicate that it would cost less per year to assign each person currently in prison a full time social worker to work with them on a full time, one on one basis than it does to house the person in prison.  I’m not advocating releasing violent prisoners on this basis, but I am pointing out that we would actually increase employment and save money by adopting such a program.  More importantly, we might actually rehabilitate some people if they actually had a social worker. The current system houses criminals with other criminals as punishment, and while housed together they share ideas about how to be better criminals.  Of course, they don’t necessarily share good ideas because a really efficient criminal wouldn’t end up incarcerated – a fact that may account for the high recidivism rate among the formerly incarcerated.

The spiritual question that our criminal punishment (as opposed to criminal justice) system raises for me is:

What does our current system say about the value of a human life, given that we are willing to put human beings in cages as we do animals in a zoo?

Again, I’m not advocating for releasing violent offenders to the streets, but the truth is that a significant percentage of the currently incarcerated are not violent offenders.  I’m even willing, for the moment, to say that some people probably do need to be incarcerated for the rest of their lives – despite the fact that most European countries have much shorter prison sentences than America does, even for murder, and experience recidivism rates that are at least comparable to American rates.  Consider the following statement by Mr. Morales, who was executed yesterday,

“I like to fight, shoot dice, and explore the club scene,” he wrote. “I like drinking on occasion and love sex. I’ve been incarcerated most of my adult life, so there’s lots of things I’ve never experienced but I regret nothing.”

Is it realistic to expect a man who has been incarcerated most of his adult life to adapt to society, given that there are a lot of things he never experienced?  Can he possibly have the social skills necessary to function in society without assistance?  Add to this the gang culture in America, a culture than the government declared war on in the last century – another war that the government has bungled, by the way – a gang culture that provides the only apparent hope to urban youth with inadequate education, inadequate employment opportunities, inadequate protection from racial bias and prejudice, and more than enough judgment from the privileged of our society.  How can we possibly expect to stop the violence on the streets when we conduct military style police operations against it and reserve the right to commit the ultimate act of violence – execution – on the very people we claim we want to rehabilitate?

The usual arguments in favor of maintaining the status quo in our criminal justice system are based in economics and convenience.  I want to suggest that those considerations are both inaccurate and not convincing when stacked against the value of a human life, assuming the perspective one proceeds from is a spiritual perspective.  We have an unfortunate habit of applying a cost benefit analysis to every social problem we encounter in America, and an even more unfortunate habit of being dishonest about the facts.  We need to ask more pointed questions of those in favor of maintaining the status quo, questions such as “what would I have to give you for you to let me kill your child?”  I would expect every parent would tell us that they wouldn’t accept anything for their child’s life.  We need to develop and teach the empathy and compassion that allows each parent to see that every other parent feels the same way – even if their child is a criminal.

Much of the problem with our perspective lies in the distortion of the Judeo-Christian tradition that has existed since biblical times. Preachers from the religious right still preach an Old Testament view of justice, a view of justice from a period in human history that was very tribal and, by contemporary standards, very barbaric.  If we can come to understand that we are all beloved and valued by God ( or Divinity, or the Universe, or have Buddha Nature, or whatever your tradition calls the Ultimate), then perhaps we can come to see that to harm another person in any way is to harm God.  Perhaps we can come to see that our job is not to proceed from a place of punishment, but rather from a place of love and compassion.  It won’t happen overnight, so we need to start right now.

The next time you see someone you find irritating, or that you would be tempted to dismiss out of hand, pause and look at them until you can see divinity within them.  Look deeply within them and see that they are the child of two parents who love them, and perhaps the parent of a child or children they love, the brother or sister of siblings, and the best friend of someone who sees them very differently than you do.  When we can begin to do this exercise for the people we meet, we give birth to hope that we will eventually be able to do it for people we have never met, never seen.  Then true compassion will be born in us, and we won’t be able to ignore injustice when we encounter it. That will transform the world.

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