Just Deserts

Yesterday, Andrew Cuomo gave us a website to go to in order to stay up to date on the death penatly debate in the state assembly, and to sign a petition opposing it's reinstatement. I've done so, and would like my readers to go here, (or click on the Network for Justice banner in the sidebar) scroll to the bottom of the page, where it says, "Sign our petition and join Matthew's Network here," and fill in the required fields. Since I don't know what my readers' opinions are on the death penalty, I'll explain why I signed the petition.

The death penalty risks making us morally complicit in the deaths of innocents. If that seems too simple, keep reading. I'm opposed to the death penalty and hope that New York does not decide to reinstate it. This is not because I don't think there is any crime so heinous that the perpetrator deserves to die. I think there are crimes serious enough that the person committing it has forfeited their right to stay alive. How that makes it acceptable for the government to kill them is a difficult question, analogous to asking, after it's been established that one doesn't have a moral right to their income, why the government then has a right to take it. If I was making a pro death penalty case, I'd have to address that, but I'm not.

If I accept that there are crimes severe enough that person committing it deserves to die, why am I opposed to the death penalty? This may seem really obvious, but I'm opposed to it because of mistakes. The criminal justice system is an imperfect institution. It makes errors. It fails to punish guilty people and punishes innocent ones. It also makes mistakes about severity of guilt. For instance, we read a case yesterday in which the Supreme Court said it was constitutionally permissible to sentence someone to life in prison without the possibility of parole for possession of 672 grams of cocaine. Whether or not that is correct constitutionally, it seems obviously disproportionate morally. Since the system makes mistakes both about who to punish and how much to punish them, it is vitally important to make sure that mistake isn't made via killing them. Death is irrevocable, all other forms of criminal punishment are revocable (accept for the aspect of being labeled a criminal, which can persist even if one is found to be innocent). If the system is willing to risk irrevocable mistakes of this severity, people at large will, and should, see the system as less legitimate and be less willing to accept its authority and participate in it when needed. So the death penalty hurts the institutional viability of the criminal justice system. Oh, it also risks making us morally complicit in the deaths of innocents.