Harold Hutchison / June 18, 2020

Why Keep the Death Penalty?

Some folks are learning the wrong lessons from a string of government abuses.

With all of the discussions about abuse of power, there are some conservatives who are using that concern to push for going beyond holding the abusers accountable to taking away legitimate power of capital punishment from the state. In so doing, they are making tactical and strategic mistakes, as well as being wrong on the merits and engaging in a little hucksterism of their own.

Let’s get one of the merits out of the way. Anyone who has read the Constitution should understand that the plain language in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments allows for the death penalty. If the Founders didn’t want the death penalty, they would have said so. It’s a sad commentary on the state of our public schools’ civics education that so many people buy the argument that the death penalty is unconstitutional. Then again, too many of our elites have trouble comprehending the “shall not be infringed” part of the Second Amendment.

That said, let’s shift to some of the other merits. One of the biggest arguments made by anti-death penalty conservatives like Hannah Cox, the national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, is that life without parole is an alternative to the death penalty. But what nobody mentions is the fact that in several states, from the “blue” stronghold of Massachusetts to the swing state of Pennsylvania to formerly “red” Virginia, efforts are underway to take even that option off the table. Time magazine went so far as to call it “the other death penalty.” So it seems many Americans would go for eliminating the death penalty in exchange for life without parole … but then life without parole gets the ax. Talk about a bait and switch.

You’re talking about having a convicted murderer (or traitor or spy) possibly get out of prison while the families of the victims deal with their own life sentence — one that cannot be appealed to any court or shorted by any sort of parole board. Yet those who stand for the victims are seen as lacking compassion. When punishments are too lenient, we are, in effect, rolling the dice with the stakes being people’s lives. And all too often, when those bets go up snake eyes, there is no accountability.

Wonder why so many people admire Harry Callahan, Elliot Stabler, and other cops who do what it takes to stop bad guys? The failures of our system to address violent crime, particularly in poor neighborhoods, is to the detriment of the very people that the government is supposed to be protecting.

Now, there are some problems. The endless appeals that delay justice (and effectively deny it) have arguably sabotaged the deterrent effect of the death penalty. The fact of the matter, as we discussed in another context, is that deterrence isn’t just about the capability to do something but also about the will to do it. Whether it’s lethal injection, the electric chair, or even if someone wanted to borrow the GRU’s furnace, if criminals don’t think the death penalty is likely to happen, it won’t deter them.

But the notion that the death penalty should be eliminated altogether is not wise. The fact of the matter is, we need a way to properly and decisively deal with those who carry out heinous crimes. The death penalty may be a bad option, but the other alternatives are simply worse.

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