The death penalty is back on the menu in the United States in a big way thanks to the Trump Administration. Elsewhere in the country, lawmakers are pursuing chemical castration for sex offenders. Aside from providing a sense of closure for victims of those who perpetrate the severe crimes that warrant these punishments, both of these deterrents are rooted in the idea that harsh punishments deter crime.
But whether it’s chemical castration or capital punishment – these should not be used as deterrents in any context ever. Not only are they ineffective at reducing crime, but they degrade the moral fiber of our society.
Innocent people always suffer in the system
The first and most obvious reason why these punishments are not a good idea is that innocent people suffer. Our law enforcement and criminal justice systems are notoriously biased and many innocent people suffer inside its walls. On Death Row alone it’s estimated that 4% or more of those waiting to be killed by the government are actually innocent (with people being exonerated posthumously as well).
With such a fallible system it is important that we enact punishments that we can correct as much as possible when a mistake is made. Chemical castration can be difficult to correct (even supposedly reversible procedures can have longterm, if not permanent, effects), and there’s no coming back from killing someone who is innocent.
Deterrents may actually increase crime
Beyond the fact that innocent people get wrapped up in these outdated and barbaric punishments, there’s ample evidence that deterrents do not work to decrease crime. In fact, there is a real chance that deterrents actually increase crime. The theory, known as the Brutalization Hyphothesis, posits that brutal punishments like the death penalty lead to an overall devaluation of life in society which leads to higher crime.
There’s data to back it up as well: States and countries with the death penalty tend to trend higher in crime than those without the death penalty. At the very least, there is a clear consensus among experts that the death penalty does not deter crime.
Rehabilitation works better
While deterrence doesn’t work, rehabilitation does. There is ample evidence from other countries that a rehabilitation-focused criminal justice system is far more effective at reducing recidivism than a punishment-focused system.
Even in places where this has been experimented on in the U.S. the results are stunning. In a San Francisco re-educational program, jail violence dropped to zero for an entire year and the chance of someone reoffending after leaving the jail dropped by 83% compared to a control group. Ohio saw similarly favorable changes when it began focusing on rehabilitation over punishment as well.
Life in prison is cheaper
Of course, there are those who can’t be rehabilitated, and for them confinement is obviously key. But even those who must be confined should not be subjected to the brutality of castration or the death penalty. This, of course, always raises concerns among some about wasting taxpayer money. But, for the death penalty at least, they can take comfort in knowing that it’s actually cheaper to house inmates for life than attempt to carry out the death penalty.
We should be better than the criminals we’re putting away
To put it simply, if we kill and castrate criminals, we’re really no better than they are – we’re essentially engaging in state-sanctioned murder and sexual violence – which is made all the more worse because innocent people will be caught up in it.
Policies built upon these atrocities degrade our moral character as both a nation and individuals. The more we allow ourselves to come down to the level of criminals – and the more we allow hate, disgust, and fear to rule our individual decisions and government policy-making – the more we ultimately let slide “in the name of justice”. If we allow ourselves to compromise our humanity in order to “save humanity” then we’ll eventually lose the very thing we’re fighting for.
While it’s certainly understandable that victims and their families would want a sense of retribution for what has happened to them, the truth is this has no place in our justice system – not if we want to build a better, less crime-ridden society. Unfortunately, we can’t really have it both ways.