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Throwing Away the Key?

Remorseless repeat felons should simply be executed.

By Petrarch  |  May 24, 2010

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.