New Lifers in the Philippines

Good news from the Philippines: President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is commuting the sentences of all death row inmates in the Philippines. They're not all exactly official yet, because she can only commute death sentences that have been stamped by the Supreme Court, but "[h]er justice minister said the government would commute all future death sentences as well." Even though she appears to be motivated only by politics, the result is the same.

Related but different point from the same story:

"It's a bad news to be awakened to," Teresita Ang-See, a leader of the anti-crime Movement for Restoration of Peace and Order, told ABS-CBN television on Sunday.

"[Crime victims] are not only dismayed, they're also shocked by that announcement. It's the height of insensitivity and callousness," she said.

Ending the death penalty (which is what Arroyo is doing de facto) isn't done to screw crime victims. The crime won't be magically undone by execution. It's not as if the president were robbing them of their last chance for justice.

Ending the death penalty (in effect, if not in intent) eliminates the chance that people will be killed for crimes they didn't commit. I'm sympathetic to the idea that some actions may result in your losing your right to live. But as an institution it has too great a chance of killing the innocent.

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Randall, ...Ending the death

Randall,

...Ending the death penalty (in effect, if not in intent) eliminates the chance that people will be killed for crimes they didn’t commit. I’m sympathetic to the idea that some actions may result in your losing your right to live. But as an institution it has too great a chance of killing the innocent.

I couldn't disagree more. This would only result in an even higher chance of being incarcerated for crimes that you didn't commit, or crimes that were never committed at all by anyone. The politico-legal system at least is sometimes slightly embarrassed if they execute an innocent, but personally and collectively benefit by how many they incarcerate, innocent or not, and by asset forfeiture.

Your approach reduces life to a digital consideration, one or zero, alive or dead. Other than the Federal country clubs, the quality of incarcerated life is not something that you would wish on your own worst enemy. (But an exception can be made for politicians.)

Even in a practical sense, death row inmates have a far higher quality of life, as well as better legal representation, than other inmates, or possibly even than they might have had on the outside. Even when and if they are executed, it seems likely that their quality of death may not be any worse than what may await any one of us on the outside.

Regards, Don

Randall, If the death

Randall,

If the death penalty deters murders, then ending the penalty means more murders occur. If you assume the people being murdered by killers are on average at least as innocent as the people being falsely executed by the state, you are likely to get more "innocent people killed" on net as a result of ending the death penalty than by continuing it.

For instance, one study found that each execution deters 8-12 murders. Do the math on that one.

Glen, There are studies on

Glen,

There are studies on the other side too. Many show that there is no significant deterrent effect in death penalty states. Not to mention that some homicide victims whose killers get the death sentence are also heavily involved in crime: turf wars have death on both sides, and some of these are the people in jail.

Don,

I don't deny that there are incentives to expand the prison system, but there are the same incentives now, so I don't expect it would lead to too much more incarceration of innocent people.

Your last paragraph makes good points, but once the death penalty is over legal watchdogs can start focusing on lifers. The same amount of attention? Probably not. But something. And these would be the same people they'd have been focusing on before.

I couldn't disagree more.

I couldn't disagree more. This would only result in an even higher chance of being incarcerated for crimes that you didn’t commit, or crimes that were never committed at all by anyone.

Oh, well then, let's bring back something really embarassing for the government to foul up. For example, we could kill people like this:

On 2 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned 'to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris', where he was to be 'taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds'; then, 'in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds'(Pièces originales ..., 372-4).

--Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 3

With these kind of punishments in place, I'll bet the politico-legal system would be really careful not to convict the wrong person, right? Let's hear it for de-abolition of public torture!

Personally, I don't give a

Personally, I don't give a crap about whether the death penalty is an effective deterrent. Failing to deter a crime is a very different thing than carrying out that crime yourself, and that's what the State (and therefore you and I) are doing every single time an innocent person is put to death or dies as a result of imprisonment.

Sean: Doesn't the same logic

Sean:
Doesn't the same logic apply to imprisonment? The state imprisons far more innocent individuals than it executes, and while it's worse to be executed than to be imprisoned for twenty years and then released, imprisonment is still irreversible. A person may be released from prison, but one who has whiled away his youth in a cell can never really be made whole again.

We tolerate this because it deters crime, and on net it helps the innocent more than it hurts them. Maybe the same is true with respect to the death penalty, and maybe it's not. But this is a valid question to ask.

Or, to put an AnCap spin on it, suppose you're choosing between two privately-governed communities: One in which you have a .01% chance of being murdered and a .001% chance of being executed unjustly, or one in which you have a .02% chance of being murdered and no chance of being executed unjustly. Which do you pick?

Brandon Berg: Doesn't the

Brandon Berg: Doesn't the same logic apply to imprisonment? The state imprisons far more innocent individuals than it executes, and while it’s worse to be executed than to be imprisoned for twenty years and then released, imprisonment is still irreversible. A person may be released from prison, but one who has whiled away his youth in a cell can never really be made whole again.

I'm not a big fan of arguments from the possibility of innocence (plenty of innocent people are killed; but I think the death penalty is morally indefensible even when the condemned is clearly guilty as hell). But I don't understand the argument that you're making here. It's true that you can't get back the time lost while you were unjustly incarcerated, or undo the pain that was inflicted on you by the incarceration itself. But it's not true that nothing can be done toward making you whole again: besides being released, you can also be compensated for the wrongful harm that was done to you. Whether or not that can ever fully make up for the wrong done you, it's more than can be said for judicial murder of the innocent: there's no possible compensation for the wrongfully executed. (Their estates can be paid off, but so what?) So how do you go from pointing out that no policy offers 100% restoration to the wronged to a defense of a policy that absolutely guarantees 0% restoration of the wronged?

Or, to put an AnCap spin on it, suppose you're choosing between two privately-governed communities: One in which you have a .01% chance of being murdered and a .001% chance of being executed unjustly, or one in which you have a .02% chance of being murdered and no chance of being executed unjustly. Which do you pick?

I don't know; I figure it depends in part on what you value in a society. But I think that this question actually changes the subject rather than responding to Sean's point, anyway. He is not making a claim about what sort of society you should prefer to live in if you had to choose one. He's making a claim about what you, personally, are or are not entitled to do: you are not entitled to commit premeditated murder, whether or not it helps produce the sort of society in which you would like to live. Now, maybe you think that he's wrong about that; if you're a strict consequentialist, for example, then one of the things you probably have to reject is the idea that, body count being equal, there's any moral difference between doing murder and failing to prevent murder. But if so, that's the point at which the argument needs to strike; offering two hypothetical societies for choice is just going to sidestep the point that Sean was explicitly trying to make.

You are not entitled to

You are not entitled to commit premeditated murder, whether or not it helps produce the sort of society in which you would like to live.

But by the very same logic, you're not allowed to throw innocent people in jail to create the sort of society you want to live in. If you want to rule out the death penalty without any sort of cost-benefit analysis, then you must also rule out incarceration on the same grounds.

You can't have it both ways. Either it's okay to accept a certain false positive rate in the justice system because it ultimately makes us safer on average, or the rights of innocent people are sacrosanct, and we have to avoid punishing criminals altogether. If you believe that the costs outweigh the benefits for incarceration but not for execution, that's fine. But if you don't want to do the cost-benefit analysis for one, you can't do it for the other.

Brandon Berg: But by the

Brandon Berg:

But by the very same logic, you're not allowed to throw innocent people in jail to create the sort of society you want to live in.

But Brandon, you're not entitled to do that.

Incarceration of the innocent is a moral crime and the victims of it are owed both release and proportional compensation from their victimizers.

That does not, contrary to your claims, entail that you can't incarcerate anybody. "You can't morally incarcerate the innocent" doesn't entail "You can't morally do anything that risks incarcerating the innocent." But it does entail that you're under some obligations of restraint.

First, you're obliged to use violence only to the extent that it's necessary to defend yourself and others from the threat posed by the individual person you're using it against, since anything further involves not only taking a risk that you'll harm the innocent, but taking a gratuitous risk that's neither justified nor excused by the right of defense. You're entitled, sometimes, to risk harming innocent people in order to defend against a concrete threat. You're not entitled to risk harming anybody in order to preemptively ward off alleged future dangers posed by unspecified and unrelated third parties.

Second, you're obliged not to use violence so as to make it impossible for you to compensate any innocent people that you may hurt, if you can possibly avoid it. If you're going to risk hurting innocent people then you had better be prepared to do what you can to ameliorate or make up for the damage that you've caused, should it turn out that they were innocent after all.

Incarcerating people for crimes doesn't categorically violate these obligations. Incarcerating alleged criminals just to serve as a "deterrant" to anonymous third parties does violate the first obligation, and you have no right to do that. Deliberately killing prisoners as a "deterrant" directly violates both of these obligations.

Either it's okay to accept a certain false positive rate in the justice system because it ultimately makes us safer on average, or the rights of innocent people are sacrosanct, and we have to avoid punishing criminals altogether.

"A certain false positive rate?"

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense
of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in
India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the
atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments
which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not
square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus
political language has to consist largely of euphemism,
question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages
are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the
countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with
incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of
peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the
roads with no more than they can carry: this is called
transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are
imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck
or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called
elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if
one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of
them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor
defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I
believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results
by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like
this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain
features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we
must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to
political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional
periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been
called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of
concrete achievement.

--George Orwell (1946), "Politics and the English Language"