life and death sentences



Freddie deBoer used to blog at, and may again someday. Now he blogs here.

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53 Responses

  1. Avatar Francis says:

    It’s really expensive to keep them until you bury the bones in the yard.

    There’s a reason to dump dying prisoners back on their families; it’s cheaper. While it’s been a while (like 15+ years) since law school, the last I checked the standard was “deliberate indifference” to required medical care. California’s prison health care system, for example, is operating under court order in part due to its historic treatment of the elderly and crazy. So-called “compassionate release” can save truly remarkable sums of money.Report

  2. Avatar Creon Critic says:

    I’m not sure if this will change any minds as this is a difficult one, and I don’t begrudge anyone’s differing opinion. The PM show on BBC Radio 4 yesterday explained more about the process, and in this context MacAskill’s decision to grant compassionate release made more sense to me. The gist, those terminally ill with less than three months to live are released from Scottish prisons in the name of mercy and compassion. Since 2000, there have been 30 applications for release under these grounds and 23 have been approved. Three or four of those released were convicted for murder or unlawful killing. I haven’t heard an explanation of the 7 rejections, but one interviewee offered that the medical evidence may not have shown the late stage of terminal illness in those cases.

    I’d also add compassionate release isn’t unique to Scotland, the UK government recently granted compassionate release to Ronnie Biggs. Biggs was a participant in the Great Train robbery of 1963 who’d escaped prison and fled to Brazil; Biggs returned to the UK 2001 for medical treatment and was imprisoned. He was granted compassionate release earlier this month as he’s gravely ill with pneumonia (BBC).

    Vengeance, and even bloodlust, are really nasty features too much in evidence in the American justice system – crossing the boundary into being inhumane (HRW). I could just be overcompensating for my disapproval of those qualities in the US in forming an opinion on compassionate release & why it makes sense to me. Altogether, I would rather live in a world that errs towards the side of compassion – even if I’m wrong and foolhardy (and I wholly accept this position could be both).

    Throughout the coverage here in the UK, really difficult questions have been posed: Does compassion even count if it “easy” to be compassionate? Do we have a duty to forgive – in what circumstances, if ever, is forgiveness owed? An interviewee mentioned the first line of this and it seems appropriate,

    The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
    ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
    The throned monarch better than his crown;
    His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
    The attribute to awe and majesty,
    Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
    But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
    It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
    It is an attribute to God himself;
    And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
    When mercy seasons justice.
    the Merchant of Venice


    • Avatar North in reply to Creon Critic says:

      Very eloquent and poetic. I like it. Especially the last line. And I think the last line is the most important: I’m unaware of anyone who thinks a plate full of seasoning alone makes a good meal.Report

  3. Avatar Bob Cheeks says:

    The SOB should have been hung right after the trial and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.Report

  4. Avatar North says:

    Bob’s comment is pretty much why I feel that anti-death penalty liberals logically need to be for concrete life sentences. If you are against taking a person’s life as the punishment for truely henious crimes then your logical alternative must nearly as terrible otherwise you’re just a squish. So I think your reasoning is sound in this issue Freddie.Report

    • Avatar Ryan in reply to North says:

      I couldn’t disagree more. As Liz Anderson pointed out to me in college, there is virtually no difference between the death penalty and life in prison, in terms of practical outcomes for a person’s contribution to society. If I am opposed to the death penalty – and I am – I see no way to justify locking someone up and throwing away the key. As Bob says, might as well just kill him in that case. It’s basically the same thing.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Ryan says:

        Thanks for the response Ryan. What, then, is the just punishment for our most henious crimes? If we can’t execute the (for taking a life is horrible) and we can’t sentence them to life imprisonment (because that’s just as bad as killing them) then what do we have left? A stern talking to and mandatory weekly therapy?Report

        • Avatar Ryan in reply to North says:

          It’s a hard question, and I wouldn’t presume to have an answer for it. But my inclination is toward something like “imprisonment until rehabilitated”. Maybe a review after 20 years to see how the person is doing, and an extension to the sentence if we think he’s still a threat. I don’t honestly know. But saying, “You’re going to prison forever with no chance of parole” is not materially different from a death sentence. If that’s the kind of prison sentence you’re handing out, you’d save the American taxpayer a lot of money by just putting a bullet in his head right in the courtroom.Report

          • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Ryan says:

            But does rehabilitation actually work? I thought prisons, if anything, tended to make a lot of prisoners quite a lot worse than they were before they got there….

            Good post, Freddie. I agree entirely. The cynic in me immediately thought it must have to do with costs more than compassion. Either way – the question remains: If this were Osama bin Laden how would we feel? At what point does the death toll negate our compassion? What if this were a man responsible for genocide? Serial murder? Where do we draw the line?Report

            • Avatar Ryan in reply to E.D. Kain says:

              You’ll get no argument from me that American prisons are awful, inhumane, degrading places. I think there’s plenty of evidence that people are capable of being rehabilitated, but that doesn’t mean our political/social/cultural system is willing to take the steps that would actually be necessary to rehabilitate criminals rather than simply writing them off.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Ryan says:

                Well we’re talking about our worst crimes here Ryan. What about premeditated murderers? Or do you believe that all forms of crime can be rehabilitated? Also of course there’s the question of Justice but I suppose that strays close to vengence which isn’t a purpose in the judicial system. Still, I feel that if you eliminate life imprisonment and eliminate execution but don’t have an alternative that significantly reduces the standing of the position.Report

              • Avatar Ryan in reply to North says:

                I think the greatest weakness of so many debates is this idea that we have to just *know* the correct thing to do a priori. I have no idea. I think sentencing people to death is heinous and barbaric, and I think putting people in prison without any hope of ever getting out is basically the same thing as the death penalty. Whether my “position” is “reduced” or not doesn’t seem like a very valuable thing to worry about.

                As for premeditated murders… I guess that depends on the point of the whole thing. Are we punishing? Deterring? Protecting society? This is an old debate, but it’s hard to get a handle on it. Premeditated murderers are not, as a general rule, dangerous to society at all – i.e., they aren’t usually going to go around killing lots of people when they had very specific reasons to murder someone. So presumably the only thing we’d really like to do is keep them from killing in the first place. But we know the death penalty isn’t a very effective deterrent, and I’m skeptical that prison is either. So what are we trying to accomplish? And are we doing that? Or are we just making ourselves feel better?Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Ryan says:

                It seems to me there is a significant and very important deterrent factor in imprisonment and it is because of that deterrent factor that premeditated murders aren’t much of a threat to society. We don’t imprison first degree murderers to rehabilitate them. We imprison them to artificially raise the cost of doing premeditated murder over the benefits of doing so (which can be considerable).

                So yes, we’re definitly deterring, and by doing so we’re also protecting society. And we’re probably squeezing in
                some justice/punishment as well.Report

              • Avatar Ryan in reply to North says:


              • Avatar North in reply to North says:

                Which assertion do you want evidence for?Report

              • Avatar Ryan in reply to North says:

                That prison has a deterrent effect, especially for the most severe violent crimes. I’m willing to believe it does – I think Steve Levitt has shown that harsh prison conditions have some deterrent effect, although whether we want those is a slightly different question – but I haven’t seen a lot of convincing evidence on that count.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to North says:

                Well obviously I can’t cite the murders that went uncommitted for fear of punishment since of course they didn’t occur. I’ll offer my own humble (I love to read myself talking).

                A man who murders and shows no concern about consequences is typically objectively disordered (sociopath, psychopaths, mentally disabled so as to be incapable of considering consequences of actions). Alternatively they’re crimes of passion where the person is in such an emotionally heightened state that they’re pretty much not mentally functional during the act.

                First degree murderers go to considerable lengths to conceal their crimes. See various actual legal cases or the entire genre of murder mystery which while fictional ultimately grows inspired from the soil of actual events. If people who actually committed murders were undeterred by the punishment they would not go to such effort. They were deterred essentially, but just not enough.

                With these two data points I think that is a logical assertion that there exist individuals who have considered murder but have chosen not to either by a conscious weighing of the likelihood of imprisonment or by an unconscious awareness that they will be punished both of which are a result of our practice of imprisoning.

                Therefore imprisonment or the threat of imprisonment has a deterrent effect. At least on mentally sound or mostly mentally sound individuals.

                Or, if you’re unsatisfied by my flights of mental gymnastics I can trudge off to Google to look for the relevant studies.Report

              • Avatar Ryan in reply to North says:

                It sounds a little like the Laffer Curve: cute theory, nice story, almost completely false.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to North says:

                On what grounds? Your say so? Please elaborate then, why you think that murderers try so hard not to be caught if prison is not a deterrent?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to North says:

                I’m guessing that the vast, vast majority of crimes that warrant prison involve absolutely awful impulse control.Report

      • Avatar Zeke in reply to Ryan says:

        Not at all, there is one enormously significant difference between execution and life imprisonment: life imprisonment is amenable if the court’s decision turns out to be mistaken. Perhaps Freddie differs, but my principle reason for opposing capital punishment isn’t that executing heinous criminals is horrible, it is that mistakenly executing even a tiny number of innocent people is incredibly horrible. Life imprisonment leaves the door open to make amends if mistakes are later discovered.Report

        • Avatar Ryan in reply to Zeke says:

          One of my points is that that different isn’t actually that significant. If someone is locked up for 20+ years and then exonerated, it’s true to say he still has his life. But we’ve chopped about 25% (or more) of it off, and left him unskilled and barely employable. I consider that a difference of degree, but not really a difference of kind. Certainly it’s an improvement over killing an innocent person, but my guess is that, practically speaking, it matters a lot more to our consciences than to the lives of the convicted.Report

        • Avatar Ryan in reply to Zeke says:


  5. Avatar Mr. Prosser says:

    I agree entirely with Freddie but remember that incarcerating someone probably requires the authority to provide more than the modicum of medical care (at least in the US, I don’t know the rules in Scotland). “Compassionate” release may mean, “get the guy out of here before he costs us a fortune in medical and end of life care.” How great is the care in Libya?Report

  6. Avatar Mr. Prosser says:

    Sorry Francis, you wrote what I was thinking ahead of me. I should read the comments before shooting off my mouth (keyboard?) but at 6:20 am It’s a wonder I’m even typing.Report

  7. Avatar Jaybird says:

    As someone who sees slavery up there with “rape” (and sees prisons as providing a fine helping of both), I’m stuck thinking that there has got to be a better way. Surely.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Jaybird says:

      I really enjoyed your article on this subject a while back Jay. But as you noted in it, we’re plumb out of Austrailia’s to banish them to. Unless you’ve got a phantom zone projector squirelled away somewhere we may be stuck with what we’ve got.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to North says:

        I have no idea. House arrest, maybe?

        I have no idea what the right answer is. I can’t help but think that, even if there is no right answer, there are better wrong answers than this one.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Jaybird says:

          Well assuming that we provide sustenance to them while they’re locked up in their house how much different is that from what we’ve got.

          And yes, I know the current one sucks. If you think of a better one I’d love an invite to the awards dinner. I just look back in history and I don’t see societies doing anything much better than what’s done now. Well except for not bothering to imprison for trivial crap but you and I are on the same page re: the war on drugs.Report

  8. Avatar Alex Knapp says:

    Once upon a time, one of Western Civilzation’s virtues was the public display of mercy towards criminals.

    I suppose now we’re too “civilized” for that.


    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Alex Knapp says:

      From what I understand, the guy was greeted with cheers when he arrived.

      I think it’s safe to say that whatever the intention was of the imprisonment or of the release, it was not achieved.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Alex Knapp says:

      Alex, I’m fascinated, what time are you referring to?
      Or do you mean now? After all they used to hang them or electrocute them. Before that they drew and quartered them and short of that rotted them alive in prisons that make even our modern hell-hole equivalents look like a day at the spa. And before that they crucified them and before that they bonked em on the head with a big stick.Report

  9. Avatar greg says:

    Although I agree with Creon Critic that I’d rather live in a society that “errs on the side of compassion,” I don’t think compassion is the right term for this case. And forgiveness is certainly the wrong term. Somebody has to be “worthy” of compassion, and forgiveness is a miraculous gesture that attempts to undo the past (and usually comes with conditions like repentance or reparations). The Shakespeare quote is apt, for “mercy” seems closest to what we’re dealing with here: an act of sovereign grace, a free gift. Compassion and forgiveness are close to vengeance in the sense that they are moral emotions that belong outside the sphere of law altogether. The real world is messier, of course, but some analytical clarity might help us think about the issues. Punishment is a grave subject that (in my view) does not receive the careful attention it deserves in American political discourse.Report

  10. Avatar Trumwill says:

    I wanted to sound off in support of North’s comments. As an opponent of the death penalty, I view a real LWOPP as an essential component.

    And I disagree with Ryan. Being in prison is not better than being dead. Prisoners don’t fight tooth and nail to avoid the gurney because they don’t see an appreciable difference. They don’t plead down to avoid the death penalty for lack of a difference, either. When push comes to shove, both before and after having spent some time incarcerated, people choose to live. I tend to place more weight on those that are actually having to make that choice over whatever choice I think I might make if put in their position.Report

    • Avatar Ryan in reply to Trumwill says:

      “Being in prison is not better than being dead. Prisoners don’t fight tooth and nail to avoid the gurney because they don’t see an appreciable difference.”

      I’ll go ahead and assume the contradiction here is unintentional, and that you meant being in prison *is* better than being dead. And… I don’t see how that’s a disagreement. I never once said the contrary. What I said is that the difference does not materially matter from the point of view of what we’re trying to achieve by punishing them. I think we can all agree that people, when given the choice, would rather live than die (generally speaking). But that doesn’t mean that the social outcome of the two choices is notably different.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Trumwill says:

      Thanks Trumwill. I think what it boils down to is really the last line of the verse Creon quoted so well.

      “When mercy seasons justice.”

      Emphasis on seasoning. We can’t do away with the justice. If we won’t kill for the most horrible of crimes (and I’m a unentheused opponent of the death penalty) then we need to have LWOPP.Report

  11. Avatar Bob Cheeks says:

    Murder, rape, child molestation…hang ’em. Horrendous crimes….hang ’em, no weight. Solves everything and it’s just!Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

      Problem is, Bob, occasionally we have police corruption or a grandstanding prosecutor or defense attorney incompetence and then a couple years later we find out that, whoops, we were wrong. With life sentences you can shuffle your feet, give the victim a handsome pay off and let ‘em relax on a beach in Koala Lampur. If they’re six months cold in the ground, or even twenty minutes cold in the ground then you’re screwed but not half as much as they are and it’s just not right. Hell lets put it in conservative speak: Death is too final to be left in the hands of the bureaucrats.Report

      • Avatar Bob Cheeks in reply to North says:

        North, dude, can’t I pretend it’s the perfect world?
        Given the fallen nature of man I would require really, really excellent PROOF of who did the deed before executing someone. On really good circumstantial I wouldn’t bitch about life in prison. On bad cops, prosecutors and screwed up bureaucrats who do nasty deeds to people …hang them, there’s always more lawyers and bureaucrat wanna bees.
        I view the death penalty, hanging, as a show and tell experience for the community…some will get it, some won’t, but we can try.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

          Well you’re consistent and in a perfect system I’d agree with you. I’d support a death penalty over life imprisonment because it doesn’t punish everyone else (the resources required to contain a scumbag for life are enormous) and because it’s kinder (life imprisonment is a horrible fate). But add a slight margin of error into it and I can’t support hanging em. I need to be able to retain the ability to say “Oops we were wrong, off you go.” for as long as it’s possible for us to be wrong. That’s why I’m personally an unentheusiastic opponent of the death penalty.Report

  12. Avatar Dave Hunter says:

    “What, then, is the just punishment for our most henious crimes?”

    I’m sure I don’t know. But it shouldn’t be the government’s job to supply “justice,” or to communicate which crimes we especially don’t like.

    The criminal justice system should supply deterrence, and it should keep the populace safe from dangerous people. Since keeping the terminally ill in prison does neither of these things, it’s on us to not do it.Report

  13. Avatar Trumwill says:

    If not the government’s, whose job is it to supply justice?Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Trumwill says:

      A theist might say God. But being the agnostic squish I am my only options to offer are Government, Mob or Ceilingcat.Report

    • Avatar Dave Hunter in reply to Trumwill says:

      It’s not anybody’s job.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Dave Hunter says:

        But we hired people! We took a vote!Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Dave Hunter says:

        Come on Dave. If it’s not anybody’s job then it becomes everyone’s job and then we’re back 3000 years to Justice’s original form; red in tooth and claw.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to North says:

          Tho come to think of it maybe that number of years should be much bigger.Report

        • Avatar Dave Hunter in reply to North says:

          Huh? We have a system of laws, now. The penal system should do what is necessary to keep people safe by sequestering criminals and deterring crime. But supplying “justice”? By which you seem to mean punishment in excess of what is strictly necessary, just to flaunt our ability to withhold forgiveness. No, that’s silly.

          Nobody has or ever will know what justice even refers to. What does it mean to be a man who killed 200 innocent people 20 years ago? I don’t think anyone can really answer that question.Report