Death Penalty vs. Life Penalty?

Michaela's picture

I was really struck while reading Doing Life this week, especially Tyrone Werts' assertion that the criminal justice system is something akin to slavery--we can oppose certain elements of it, like the death penalty, as cruel and unusual punishment, but we are complicit in allowing the whole, flawed system to continue. I have always considered myself very against the death penalty, since I think it is entirely inhumane and torturous, as well as hypocritical. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and so on. I'd always just figured that the better alternative was to keep someone imprisoned for a life sentence, where they wouldn't be able to get out and commit another heinous crime, but where they would have a chance to continue their lives and better themselves. Tyrone Werts complicates this for me. Is it really ever okay to lock someone up and throw away the key for the rest of their life? I am still fully against the death penalty, and hope to work to see it repealed in all states across the US, but maybe more attention should also be paid to an anti-life sentence movement--as we have seen, it is an incredibly damaging and often unfair practice, almost as much so as the death penalty is. 

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Owl's picture

Response to Michaela...

You know I had the exact the same reaction when I was filling out my absentee ballot during hurricane Sandy. One of the propositions in California is the elimination of the death penalty. At first I was quick to respond with an "of course!" attitude, but as I read further, I became aware that the proposition also called to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole. I was dumbfounded by this proposition to the extent that I found myself wanting to abstain from voting in this case. On a moral and personal level I am against the death penalty, but to have it replaced with life without parole seemed to me to be an illogical concept. The more and more we read about the prison complex and the disportionate effect it has on minority populations, I find myself incredibly lost as to what we as a society deem to be the purpose of imprisonment and an individual life at that.  

Julia's picture

Death and Life Penalties

Hi, this is Julia posting as a guest because my serendip account has been blocked as it's somehow corrupted.

I also was thinking about how I feel about sentencing and the idea that there is a hierarchy of mercy in the US criminal justice system that corresponds to death, life, and time-limited sentences. An argument I've often heard by people who oppose the death penalty is that a life sentence allows criminals ample time to feel remorse and contribute in some way to society. That seems like a very dangerous line of reasoning to me, as the two supposedly distinct voices in this argument about life and death penalties are both arguing for a more punitive approach (if that's even possible in our current system!). Like Werts, I believe there's an absence in discourse about some third option. We talk a lot about needing to change the punitive model to a more restorative approach for incarcerated men and women who have committed comparatively minor crimes but often ignore the fact that some of the population about whom we are speaking have committed violent crimes. If the argument for life in prison is that it allows prisoners, who society often see as emotionless, wrathful beings, significant time for reflection and remorse, then the subtext of a life sentence is that it will allow for incarcerated men and women to have a limitless period of suffering the consequences of their actions without any hope for external change in their life circumstances. I'm not entirely sure what the point of that is. Yes, I oppose the death penalty, but I don't want to promote this alternate model of a 'life penalty.' I do see Haley's point about possibilities for release potentially leading to recidivism for inmates who have committed violent crimes, but I think the action of essentially writing off decades of people's lives as worthless is as damaging as many of the crimes for which they are incarcerated. There are already structures in place like parole hearings for inmates that allow for sentences to be amended...it seems plausible that this could be extended to men and women who currently have life (or equivalent) sentences. Can we erase the 'without possibility of parole' tagline from life sentences?

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