Life After Execution — Perspectives Thesis

Paradoxically, states with harsher criminal statutes and higher conviction rates tend to maintain fewer inmate developmental programs because high-volume prisons tend to be run on a for-profit basis that discourages “unnecessary” spending. The most cynical suggestion is that decreasing recidivism is against the financial interests of private prisons and (although to a lesser extent,) those of government-run prisons as well (Schmalleger, 2008).

Other aspects of many types of contemporary criminal trends may also significantly undermine any strategy of deterrence through awareness of strict prosecution and sentencing. In that regard, law enforcement authorities across the nation have catalogued volumes of information about criminal subcultures in general and of the street gang mentality in particular (Pinizzotto, Davis, & Miller, 2007). Urban street gangs in particular have given rise to a culture of remorseless violence and disregard for the consequences of even the most violent crime that largely precludes any real deterrent value in strict criminal enforcement or capital punishment for the most serious crimes. Generally, there is no apparent difference in the gang-related incidence of violent crime or murder rates among jurisdictions with very different criminal laws or the applicability of capital punishment (Lynch, 1999; Nagin, 1998).

Even more generally, today’s urban street gangs recruit members even before their teenage years and often from homes without the benefit of stable structure and competent adult authority figures fulfilling parental roles (Pinizzotto, Davis, & Miller, 2007). As a result, the young recruits who absorb the culture of crime and violence without any competing messages from adult role models outside of the criminal subculture view prison as a fact of life; if anything, they regard criminal incarceration as a mark of “street credibility” in their social culture (Pinizzotto, Davis, & Miller, 2007). Similarly, their exposure to violence and their first-hand experiences with the loss of close friends in gang violence only further reduces any reasonable hope that the awareness of capital punishment will serve a deterrent function as often envisioned by legislators (Schmalleger, 2008).

Either way, in general, modern prisons function very much like training camps for criminals in which the sheer amount of time in lengthier sentences allows criminals to develop, share, practice, and perfect criminal schemes and techniques and thereby turn out more dangerous, capable, and committed criminals than those that enter their facilities. In that regard, capital punishment would address that concern, as well as the social fairness issue of perpetually allocating the substantial financing of not-for-profit government-owned prisons from their innocent victims and potential victims in society.

At least in cases where the crimes involved satisfy the Gregg criteria (Dershowitz, 2002; Friedman, 2005), there is an argument that capital punishment is preferable to burdening society with the expense of housing, feeding, and protecting violent criminals whose purposeful actions have necessitated their removal from law-abiding society. In that respect, capital punishment does serve one of the principle purposes of the criminal justice system: namely, the protection of innocent citizens from predatory criminals. By definition, the imposition of death penalty sentences also fulfils another essential role of criminal justice: retribution.

The only principal objective of the criminal justice system that capital punishment is, without argument, incapable of achieving is restitution, at least in any tangible sense. However, in a more general sense, the death penalty is (admittedly) sometimes intended to fulfil the need for vengeance on the part of those left behind in the wake of capital crimes involving the death of loved ones. In many cases, the remaining loved ones do benefit from the knowledge that justice has been served as harshly as allowed by law. Certainly, this provides a form of psychological validation for their grief and their anger at the perpetrator.

On the other hand, various additional factors contribute to the degree of support for capital punishment, even among the families of victims. Naturally, the families of offenders typically have a very different perspective of capital punishment as well. Whereas predictions and expectations of the effect of executions are substantially uniform in the case of the families of offenders, that is not necessarily true with respect to the families of their victims.

The Families of Victims:

The families of slain victims of crime may actively support, seek, and welcome the application of the death penalty to the perpetrators of the crimes resulting in the death of their loved ones. However, other families in identical circumstances may have completely different reactions; furthermore, those reactions are, in turn, capable of being generated by completely opposite sentiments.

Consider that it is possible to support capital punishment from the perspective of vengeance and retribution and for the purposes of achieving psychological closure for the families of victims. It is also distinctly possible to oppose capital punishment for vengeful purposes, particularly where the individual involved believes that lifelong penal incarceration is a worse punishment than a quick death. In that case, opposition would be only motivated by differences in perspective as to defining which form of punishment would be worse from the point-of-view of the offender and the desire to impose whichever would produce the greatest suffering.

Alternatively, the families of victims could oppose the execution of the individual responsible for killing their loved one out genuine sympathy for offender, for the innocent members of that person’s family, as well as for reasons having to do with the need to recover psychologically through forgiving instead of through seeking vengeance. Moreover, the victim’s family could uphold religious convictions that prohibit killing, even through legally sanctioned processes (Dershowitz, 2002).

In that regard, religious beliefs may play an integral role in determining the attitude of the families of crime victims. Many Christian faiths in particular promote the notion of forgiveness even for the most heinous crimes and tremendous personal losses. Families who practice these religious values are often vehemently opposed to capital punishment and much more capable of benefiting psychologically by alternatives to execution. In fact, it is not uncommon for the families of victims with this perspective to seek to meet the offender in order to achieve closure that way, through the process of understanding the motivations and reasons responsible for their loss and also to experience their personal forgiveness of the offender by communicating it in person (Schmalleger, 2008).

That particular point-of-view is uniquely Christian, but there are numerous other religious perspectives that prohibit killing as well (Kaveny, 2008; Lancet, 2008). That is often true even in many parts of the Middle East where existing criminal sanctions for non-capital crimes are substantially harsher than any permitted in the U.S. Two fairly common examples would include flogging and the forced amputation of the hands of thieves, both of which would be specifically prohibited in the U.S. On the basis of cruelty pursuant to the Eighth Amendment (Dershowitz, 2002; Friedman, 2005). Meanwhile and ironically, many of the same Muslim countries that have declared their formal religious support for and a pledge to comply with the recommendations by the United Nations to eliminate capital punishment entirely have no moral qualms imposing what would be considered cruel torture in the U.S. (Kaveny, 2008; Lancet, 2008).

Naturally, for families of victims in the U.S. whose religious and moral convictions oppose the concept of capital punishment, the prospect of execution of the offender may only compound their grief and complicate their achievement of psychological closure, particularly to the extent that process involves communicating their forgiveness to the offender. Furthermore, execution in such circumstances could also raise feelings of guilt on the part of the families of victims, for the offender’s execution and for the situation of the members of the offender’s innocent family members.

The Families of Offenders:

As can be expected, the families of offenders sentenced to capital punishment tend to have a very negative view of that aspect of the criminal justice system. In general, it is difficult for families to reconcile their emotional and psychological attachment to loved ones with their conscious awareness of their guilt (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2008; Schmalleger, 2008). Form their perspective, there is no productive purpose achieved by executing the offender because incarceration completely satisfies any need to remove the offender from society for the protection of the innocent. Likewise, from the perspective of the offender’s loved ones, lifelong incarceration is sufficient retribution as well.

That belief is also consistent with sentiments that it is hypocritical for the criminal justice system to abhor killing on one hand but to sanction death as punishment on the other hand when the only purpose seemingly achieved is vengeance. Furthermore, it is frequently the case that the execution of the offender traumatizes other members of the offender’s extended family, including parents, siblings, spouses, and the children of the offender. Even the strongest supporters of capital punishment acknowledge that the family members of the offender are innocent victims themselves (Dershowitz, 2002; Schmalleger, 2008).

From the sociological perspective, the imposition of capital punishment may very well contribute to perpetuating multi-generational cycles of antisocial behavior and…

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