Throwing Away the Key?

Remorseless repeat felons should simply be executed.

The New York Times reports:

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that Congress has the authority under the Constitution to allow the continued civil commitment of sex offenders after they have completed their criminal sentences... The federal law at issue in the case allows the government to continue to detain prisoners who had engaged in sexually violent conduct, suffered from mental illness and would have difficulty controlling themselves. If the government is able to prove all of this to a judge by "clear and convincing" evidence - a heightened standard, but short of "beyond a reasonable doubt" - it may hold such prisoners until they are no longer dangerous or a state assumes responsibility for them.

On the face of it, the Supreme Court's decision is an inexplicable and shocking example of unjust tyranny.  We expect prisoners to be convicted in a court of law and sentenced by a judge; then, after the sentence is up and they have "served their debt to society," they are released.  Under the law this case determined to be constitutional, however, a criminal can serve out his full time in jail... and then be kept there indefinitely, forever if need be!  What could be more un-American?

There's another side to this issue.  We'd like to think of prisoners as learning their lessons and emerging from the pen as a new man, determined to go and sin no more.  Every police blotter in America reveals this to be a pipe-dream; the vast majority of crooks return to crime the moment they're released.  Fifty years of "rehabilitation" experiments have proved nothing so conclusively as that criminal rehabilitation does not work no matter how many government employees and taxpayer dollars we throw at the problem.

Was it really a good idea to let him
out of jail when his sentence was up?

A moment's thought reveals the reason: some people are just plain evil, beyond the reach of God or man.  Does anyone imagine that years in jail would have cured Jeffery Dahmer of his taste for human flesh, Willie Horton of his yearning for violence and rape, or Adolf Hitler of his burning desire to foment revolution and immolate Jews?

Provably, it didn't; all three spent time behind bars and their jail time accomplished nothing whatsoever in the way of reform.  The world would be a far, far better place had their respective jailers been able to fall back on this law, allowing them to be identified as a clear danger to the community and unsafe to be let out onto the streets.  We are safe from the predations of Mr. Dahmer only because some other inmate took decisive action and killed him while a guard's back was turned: convenient, but our society should not be dependent on vigilantism from anyone, much less by convicted felons.

Is there a danger with government having the power to lock people up indefinitely?  For sure, there's grave danger in giving politicians that power.  That's not what the law in question did: for a criminal to be held past the end of their sentence, prosecutors had to prove to a judge that it was absolutely necessary.  Isn't that what judges are for?

False Premises

There's a larger question at hand, however.  It is a simple fact that most crimes are committed by people who are already criminals.  Rare indeed is the person who commits one and only one crime as an adult; most adults commit either no crimes, or lots of crimes, starting in their youth.

Certainly, there aren't very many people who only ever commit one crime of such severity as to land them in jail for any great length of time and then never offend again.  Two-thirds of released felons end up arrested again, and even though the vast majority of crimes are never solved, half of ex-cons become new cons once more.

Why, then, do we ever let criminals out of jail?  Why doesn't every violent crime result in an immediate life sentence?  Well, there is the half of those ex-cons who aren't convicted again, though presumably some of them simply got smarter as to how not to get caught.  The California-style "three strikes and you're out" laws are based on the idea of declaring certain people to have burnt up all their second chances.

As California shows, however, there are far too many criminals for that many life sentences to be practical.  California's prisons are bursting at the seams, convicts are being exported to lockups in other states, the Governator even suggested outsourcing jails to Mexico of all the secure and reliable places - yet the California crime rate is not shockingly lower than elsewhere, and the state is all but bankrupt.

The Left has a solution: legalize drugs, free the convicts, shorten sentences; but there's a clear link between prisoners being in jail and their not committing more crimes.  As bad as California crime already is, does anyone imagine that it won't get much, much worse with thousands of convicted felons free to demonstrate what a 50% recidivism rate means on the ground?

The Right Answer

There's another solution, one which an earlier and more matter-of-fact America heartily endorsed.  The primary purpose of criminal punishments is not to make the victims or society feel better, and only partly to serve as an example to other potential crooks.  No, the goal of punishment is societal self-defense - to protect the innocent from predators and monsters.

Looked at correctly, Congress' law is still wrong - not because it's unjust, but because it's stupid and outrageously costly.  If there are true, unreformed monsters who will commit horrible crimes no matter how we might punish them, then why must we pay countless millions to keep them in jail?  That only wastes taxpayer dollars and puts the lives of prison guards at risk.

No, to solve our budget problem, our crime problem, and our recidivism problem, there's only one answer: Widespread, prompt capital punishment.  The "three strikes and you're out" criminals, along with the uncontrollable sexual predators and the hopelessly criminal insane should be imprisoned, after proper conviction in open court of course, only as long as it takes for the hangman to be called.

When Charles J. Guiteau shot President Garfield on July 2, 1881, he was convicted of murder and hanged on June 30, 1882, less than a year later.  Justice delayed is justice denied, and spending so many resources on incorrigible felons is an injustice to society.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
Once again, the real problem with the death penalty is that it is non-rescindable. If we lived in a world where every conviction were in fact accurate, I might not have as much of a problem with it. But the State cannot bring a dead man back to life after proof of his innocence comes to light.
May 24, 2010 7:56 AM
What the people who are opposed to capital punishment won't admit is that released murderers murder again. The goal is to minimize the overall death rate. If we kill an occasional innocent person, so long as we kill fewer innocent accused than the released murderers would kill, we come out ahead.

Getting falsely accused is kinda like getting hit by a bus when you're in a crosswalk. The government has clearly wronged you, but that's the way it goes. Things happen which ought not. So long as the overall death rate is minimized, we come out ahead.

Why should these guys get free room, board, AND health care forever? The judges have ruled that California has to spend a billion bucks building a secure hospital for prisoners. Why? Why should the rest of us pay for that?
May 24, 2010 5:54 PM
Nate, that was beautiful and brilliant. You could not be more correct.

Life isn't fair. Small metorites crash through ceilings and destroy televisions. People in Florida get rained on more than people in Kansas. On the interstate, some rocks pop tires that others do not.

Building governmental "justice" on absolutes will only produce brittle rules where the rich can buy loopholes that the poor cannot.

The best we can do is to try to get the evidence right - which the United States does a darn good job at - and then come up with a sentence that a) repays the victim as much as possible and b) sets an example for future criminals.
May 24, 2010 6:44 PM
"The primary purpose of criminal punishments is not to make the victims or society feel better, and only partly to serve as an example to other potential crooks."

It is both of those things actually. Punishment, from a macro level, is:

a) payment to the victim to make up for their loss and
b) a deterrent for future criminals.

With most crime, it works out well. If you steal something, for instance, you have to give back (or repay) what was stolen. In Biblical times, it was thought that you should repay *four times* what was stolen. Not a bad idea. Either way, the victim should first be satisfied.

"Making society feel better" has nothing to do with it. Society is never the victim.

The problem with murder is that you CANNOT repay the victim. The victim is gone and nothing you do will bring them back. That poses a problem as to who should be repaid. Some think the family of the victim should be, but then how much? What is life worth?

"Society self-defense" is the same thing as "setting an example for potential crooks".

There's no way of knowing who will commit which crime in advance, so the only defense is a good offense. You come down hard on criminals (setting an example) and society is defending against the next batch of wannabe criminals coming around the corner.
May 24, 2010 6:56 PM
"The Left has a solution: legalize drugs,.."
Last time I checked so do Libertarians, and they are hardly "Leftists"... the state needs not be involved in coercion-free transactions between consenting adults, and poisoning oneself in an individual choice, like abortion for a woman, and no government needs to be involved.. unless one thinks that the nanny state is imperative everywhere to micromanage one's personal affairs.
In Colorado recidivism is over 50%, but we have this mandatory parole which sends one back for traffic tickets, evidence of addiction or alcoholism, plus the old prison director was a die-hard statist who thought prisons a gold mine for cheap labour, just like Hitler & Stalin... no joke, our incarceration population has quadrupled with <50% general population increase, and crime rates are the same.
Why lock ppl up for such trivial offences? Makes the DAs look good "fighting crime"... which is what big government is all about.
May 24, 2010 7:11 PM

I'm going to call you on your straw man. I did not say that convicted murderers should be released back into society. The rest of your argument hinges on that being the case.

What you are really arguing is that society should accept the occasional killing of an innocent IN ORDER TO SAVE ITSELF SOME MONEY. That is a difficult statement to defend, in my opinion.

May 25, 2010 6:32 AM
While hard to swallow, the truth is that society DOES kill innocent people to save money.

For example, some 50,000 people die in fatal car accidents every year. This has been the case for several decades. We could lower this number by drastically decreasing speed limits and imposing massive safety regulations (large 3 ft. rubber bumpers). But we don't. Why? Because society is comfortable with 50,0000 people dying given the cost of all the regulations and the fact that many hundreds of millions of people are driving. Overall, the price is worth it.

Got to agree with Nate on this one.
May 25, 2010 8:17 AM
Killing an innocent in order to save money is very defensible depending on the circumstances. The question is how much money and why that innocent. If killing an innocent saves you $10, well that is obviously evil. If killing a person saves society $10 trillion the greater good is obviously to kill that one person.

It is of course wrong in either case to knowingly kill an innocent. If a person has been given full due process and a fair trial however society does have a duty to make a decision with the information that is currently available.

I advocate shorter prison sentences and a higher rate of capital punishment. There are models of rehabilitation which are far more successful than putting a person it jail for 20 years.

When that person gets out not only have they lost most if not all job skills, they have been unemployed for 20 years and have a felony conviction. How many employers are going to be lining up to hire them? They have little chance to succeed in the legal market. Its hardly a surprise that they turn back to crime. (Read/see Les Miserable, it sums up the issue quite nicely.)

When a person leaves prison in order for them to be able to ever succeed in business they must be treated as any other individual otherwise they must turn back to crime.

Minor crimes such as graffiti should be punished with physical punishment such as caning. If you spend a week in jail this is hardly going to convince you that you should straighten out in and of it self. Familial pressure might but that is simply related to getting caught and not the kind of punishment that the government issues. Will caning? Well it would certainly have a larger effect on me and if it doesn't, no change from the week in prison and a much cheaper bill for the government.
May 25, 2010 8:33 AM
lfon, jonyfries,

Interesting! It seems then that it should be possible to calculate what you consider the monetary value of a human life by taking the amount of money that it costs to house a person in prison for one year, multiplying that amount by the average number of years of life left to a person convicted of crimes you consider deserving of capital punishment, and dividing by the average number of such criminals present in the system. Perhaps we can adjust by subtracting a sum that considers the costs of payments made due to wrongful convictions that are later overturned posthumously. Does that sound accurate to you?

lfon, it is true that many people die in traffic accidents that wouldn't have happened if we simply limited maximum speeds to 30 mph, for example. In those cases, though, every one of those people knowingly took a risk to get into a car and drive or ride while also being aware of the risks involved. Furthermore, none of those deaths were court-ordered.

If we are choosing societies, I will choose the one where my taxes are a little higher but I have the security of knowing that if I am wrongfully convicted of a crime I will at least be allowed to live and possibly be freed at some future date when exonerating evidence comes to light.

May 25, 2010 9:00 AM
Ah, my math is off. You wouldn't need to divide by anything. The sum seems easier to deduce than I had thought. I'm curious what it is.
May 25, 2010 9:02 AM
That would give you the savings, not the value of a human life.

The value of a human life is subjective. The value of your life is going to be different -to me- than the value of the life of my brother -to me-. The reasons for this while complicated should be self obvious.

If I was told that I could spend $20,000 to save my mother's life from some illness I most certainly would do everything in my power to get that kind of money. If I was told that I would need to spend $20,000 every year, I most likely would not. Does that make me cold? My mother would likely tell me that I was practical since her continued life would ruin my life, which she would not want.

To save a person I have never met, I might throw in a quarter. Before you think me cold hearted how many times have seen the commercials to help kids in Africa, costing you cents per day. If you have given money to something like that, how much have you given? That is how much you value human life, $10, $20 a month? Unless of course you don't think that spending money like that actually helps them, then ask yourself how are you helping them?

To take this from the personal to the national let us consider what we are talking about. We are not talking about money. Money is after all valueless directly. The real question is what are you willing to give up to save someone's life, someone who is, in this case, likely guilty of a violent crime. A morning coffee? A week's vacation? That is the value of a convict to you.

"Life in a box is better than no life at all." That is not a quote that I personally agree with, which also of course colors my opinion on the matter since, personally, if given a choice between death and 40 years in prison I'd take death.
May 25, 2010 2:26 PM
typo above, I do -not- agree with the quote at the end (which is from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by the way).
May 25, 2010 2:28 PM

May 25, 2010 2:33 PM
Actually, we place dollar values on life both implicitly and explicitly all the time. For example, the EPA has a value for life that they use in calculations of what regulations are worthwhile: $6.9 million.

And you're on the right track, Werebat, but you're missing a few variables. You would also need to consider the value of saving the lives of innocent people who the criminals would have killed if they escaped. Various researchers have demonstrated that each criminal executed saves the lives of between 5 and 18 innocents, both by deterrence and by eliminating the possibility of escape or parole and re-offending.

I think you'll find that increasing capital punishment would save a truly massive amount of money, even accounting for the exceptionally rare innocent man executed, and that that money could be applied to other life-saving investments instead. Of course we should never knowingly kill an innocent, but by definition no human endeavor can be 100% perfect, and that includes the justice system. We just have to try to do the best we can.

Lastly, of course we value different people as worth different amounts, quite rationally so. Scragged explored this fascinating philosophical problem a few months back.
May 25, 2010 2:42 PM
I claimed that the problem with the death penalty is that life cannot be restored to an innocent who has been wrongly executed.

Nate asserted that "the goal is to minimize the overall death rate", and that it was less bad for society to execute X innocents than it was for society to allow X+ innocents to be murdered by murderers who were let out of prison.

I pointed out that Nate's assertion relied on the straw man that murderers who are not executed are set free.

lfon, Jonyfries, and others reframed the economy of the argument into one of money rather than human life.

What happens when someone brings up the fact that putting people on death row is more expensive than jailing them for life? My guess is that someone will argue that executing criminals is only more expensive because of all the hoops those states require themselves to jump through before getting on with it. Execute within less time of conviction and costs go down.

Am I correct?
May 25, 2010 2:48 PM

To better illustrate what I am talking about:

I admittedly know little about the group that maintains this site, but it's far from the only such site out there. If we're arguing economics of cash, it would seem that the death penalty is not a clear winner with the systems of execution in place today.
May 25, 2010 2:54 PM
While interesting (and a bit disturbing) the answer that I would have to that is the opposite conclusion that you would like to come to. Reduce the time and the expense of executions. While appeals should of course be granted for reasonable trial issues the time between conviction and execution should be short. Lets say about a year, obviously if there are issues that are still arguing up through the court then exceptions can be made.

Will not guilty people be killed? Most likely. Is that bad? Sure. Is it better for society to deal with crimes quickly and efficiently? Absolutely. Holding a person in jail for 40 years has effectively killed his life. His family is in limbo and complicates their lives. Does his wife get remarried? Do the children take time to visit him regularly?

The costs of long prison sentences is higher in terms of human costs than death penalty. With death you grieve and move on. With very long term prison jails the costs weight perpetually upon the jailed person's family.
May 26, 2010 1:15 PM


It seems that you are again shifting the economics of this discussion to "human costs". Putting someone in prison for life, you say, may be less expensive in monetary terms (under the present system), but it is more expensive in terms of "human costs". The examples you give are interesting -- does a spouse remarry? Do the children take time to visit?

And besides, even if they are found innocent 40 years later, their life has been ruined. They're better off dead, and the lives of their family members are painfully complicated. Even if they're innocent in that case, it would be better for everyone involved if they had been executed, so a quick execution is the best policy. Is that what you are saying?

I realize I'm drifting from the topic at hand, but couldn't those same arguments also be used to justify the euthanization of people in comas?

May 26, 2010 3:19 PM
Let's skip past your first answer -- "But people in comas haven't been convicted by a jury". I understand that, but the argument here justifying the death penalty has shifted from protection of potential murder victims to keeping financial costs down to keeping "human costs" down.

If the wife of a man convicted of murder believes (or KNOWS) that he is innocent, who is the state to step in and say that he should die because it is in her best interests?
May 26, 2010 3:23 PM
I do not view 'human costs' as separate from 'financial costs.' Financial costs are meaningless because money is meaningless except in so far as it effects human lives.

And the difference between a person living in a coma (which is again something that I would never want, I would rather die than have that kind of negative effect on my family) is who makes the decision. In that case it is the family that makes the decision. Hopefully the person gave specific instructions for such a case (have a living will people) however it is the families choice. In that case society does not have the right to tell them to not continue to cause themselves pain.
May 27, 2010 12:51 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...