Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga

Friday, February 10, 2012

The death penalty: no laughing matter

I read. I READ A LOT. And every once in awhile, a book bowls me over and really makes me think.

Without giving a blow-by-blow account, I’ll tell you this: John Grisham’s The Confession is a fascinating persuasion against capital punishment.

When I was young, I was dead-set against the death penalty; but, as I got older, I temporarily lost my idealism. Perhaps we’d be doing society a favor by eradicating the most heinous of criminals; perhaps we’d be doing the taxpayers a favor, too.

But since then, I’ve come around to my original thoughts. Taking someone’s life is wrong, no matter the circumstance—and, as Grisham so articulately illustrates, particularly if the accused is innocent. Because, while we want to believe in a judicial system that judges fairly, it simply doesn’t always do so. The system is made up of humans. And humans sometimes make mistakes. If society kills an innocent person, no one wins—from the jury all the way up to the Supreme Court—not the guards, not the taxpayers, not the victims’ families, and certainly not the accused.

Furthermore, housing criminals might not come cheap, but executing them costs millions more, tens of millions more. For example, if Californians shunned execution in favor of life imprisonment, they could save $1 billion over five years. These are compelling reasons to abandon the death penalty. An eye for an eye just doesn’t cut it.

But wouldn’t it make the most sense of all to nip a life of criminality in the bud? Sure, that’s simplifying the nearly impossible. Unfortunately, nature or nurture condemns too many lives to count.

However, there is a path that’s proven to be successful. By recognizing the issue of the role of poverty in crime, strides can be made toward reducing it. Identify little ones most likely to commit crimes; in doing so, invest in their future. Don’t throw money away for the upkeep of prisoners; instead, invest it at the beginning through programs such as Head Start. Nurture preschoolers through love and education. Give them hope. Enable them to become productive citizens.

And there’s a final truth we must face. First-time offenders rarely receive life sentences. They commit minor crimes, they go to jail, they become hardened criminals. There are too many stories about incarceration gone wrong not to be real. Things go from bad to worse. And what do ex-cons face? No one wants to hire them. They get angry. They get desperate. Jail in and of itself does more to destroy a person’s chances in life than it does to rehabilitate—not because imprisonment in and of itself is ineffective but because no one has the resources to follow through. Prisons are too crowded; resources for follow-up are too few.

As James Grisham tightens the noose, the reader can't help but race ahead. Will claiming innocence prove futile? How about claiming guilt? And just how do you view capital punishment, or even imprisonment in general?

Reading The Confession makes a person think.

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