America’s Ugliest Trait: Revenge

I’ve long wondered why the majority of states in the United States continue to support the death penalty.

It makes little sense, since it has long been felt by a consensus of criminologists (one survey says 88% so believe) that the death penalty does little to prevent crime.  Homicide rates in death penalty states have consistently been higher in  the last 25 years, from a narrow gap in 1990 to a gap that shows there are five homicide deaths in death penalty states per 100,000 to less than four homicides in non-death penalty states.

Many crimes come from a momentary fit of anger or passion; others may come from a person who’s convinced he’ll “get away with it,” and still others, like Ellliot Rodgers, the 22-year-old Santa Barbara (CA) City College student who killed six students and injured 13 others on Memorial Day weekend, may have been planning to die any way, either in the assault or through suicide, as is suspected in Rodgers’ case.

Then, there’s the cost:  In 2008, a California state commission found that the use of the death penalty cost $137 million a year to administer the death penalty, compared to $11.5 million per year to keep the perpetrators in prison for life.  Similar cost gaps were found in Maryland, Tennessee and Kansas.

There’s also the near epidemic of cases wherein some 20 and 30 years later DNA tests have proven the person on death row was innocent; add to that the question of how to kill the perps without seeming barbaric.  No one has a conclusive answer to that.

Why then do 32 states continue to provide for the death penalty?

Perhaps in good conscience, the citizens and political leaders in these states have genuine compassion for the victims.  How can anyone not feel empathy with the parents of a young girl who may have been raped and then brutally murdered?  In the response to this compassion, must they turn to the ancient laws of Hammurabi and his “eye for an eye” mandate?  It’s important to realize that even Hammurabi’s code was not absolute, and covered only those who took the eye of a rich man; the penalty was virtually not used against a commoner or slave.

Sadly, I think too often the death penalty comes from a blood thirst that seems out of place in our democracy.  Let’s admit it folks: the death penalty amounts to an exercise of revenge, compounded by the too often display of macho bravado that is unthinking and just plain dumb.  Frightened politicians fear being called “soft on crime” and therefore continue to perpetrate this shameful practice.

I’m proud that Wisconsin has outlawed the death penalty since 1853 (only Michigan in 1847 did it sooner), continuing a tradition that seems to have brought no additional homicides to the state.  Would that others follow such an example.  Ken Germanson, May 24, 2014.