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April 23, 2017

Making the case that older punishments may not be so much crueler than current ones

Columnist Ross Douthat has this notable new New York Times commentary headlined "Crime and Different Punishments." Here are excerpts:

The tendency in modern criminal justice has been to remove two specific elements from the state’s justice: spectacle and pain.  During the 19th and early 20th centuries, pillories and stocks and whipping posts became museum pieces, the hangman and the firing squad were supplanted by more technical methods, and punishment became something that happened elsewhere — in distant prisons and execution chambers, under professional supervision, far from the baying crowd.

All of this made a certain moral sense.  But the civilizing process did not do away with cruelty and in some ways it could exacerbate it.  With executions, the science was often inexact and the application difficult, and when it went wrong the electric chair or the gas chamber could easily become a distinctive kind of torture.  During the last century lethal injection, now the execution method of choice, had a higher “botch rate” by far than every other means of killing the condemned. Meanwhile, the lowest rate of failure (albeit out of a small sample size) belonged to that old standby: the firing squad.

Few prisoners face execution, and anti-death penalty activists may yet reduce that number to zero.  But botched injections are not the only ways in which we pile cruelties on the condemned.  Our prison system, which officially only punishes by restraint, actually subjects millions of Americans to waves of informal physical abuse — mistreatment by guards, violence from inmates, the tortures of solitary confinement, the trauma of rape — on top of their formal years-long sentences.

It is not clear that this method of dealing with crime succeeds at avoiding cruel and unusual punishment so much as it avoids making anyone outside the prison system see it.  Nor is it clear that a different system, with a sometimes more old-fashioned set of penalties, would necessarily be more inhumane....

I would rather face the firing squad than be strapped down and injected into eternity, and I would choose a strong dose of pain and shame over years under the thumb of guards and inmates and the state.

We tell ourselves that we have prisoners’ good in mind, and the higher standards of our civilization, because we do not offer them this choice.  But those standards may be less about preventing ourselves from becoming like our sinful ancestors, and more about maintaining the illusion of clean hands — while harsh punishment is still imposed, but out of sight, on souls and bodies not our own.

April 23, 2017 at 04:47 PM | Permalink

Comments

You saw this idea many years ago, in the Comments section of this blog. What this left wing moron has yet to say is, natural death is the cruelest of all. In 90% of cases, death will be slow, agonizing, and humiliating, with illegal aliens having to clean up the person, every day, while trying to suppress their gagging.

I have proposed that the estates of death penalty prisoners sue the defense lawyers for a wrongful death when their self dealing appeal shenanigans result in a cruel and horrifying natural death vs a painless and immediate demise in the death chamber.

Do not believe me, but do believe your memory of the passing of 90% of your dead loved ones.

Posted by: David Behar | Apr 23, 2017 9:22:29 PM

"I would rather face the firing squad than be strapped down and injected into eternity, and I would choose a strong dose of pain and shame over years under the thumb of guards and inmates and the state."

I gather we won't test the second part. But, your support of euthanasia etc., contra to your conservative religious beliefs, is duly noted. Not really.

The fact is that most inmates rather the horrible existence of prison, only a few volunteering to end appeals or deciding to take their own lives. How I myself would decide there is hopefully just a thought experiment, but humans have a great instinct for survival even in horrible instances. See, e.g., Jews in concentration camps (NOT THE SAME THING, but it's an example of a survival instinct even among a horrible situation).

OTOH, the idea new is always better, or that we continued in a direct way toward good, the idea in one or more lethal injection opinions, very well might be wrong in certain cases. I would note though that the firing squad was not generally used in this country.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 24, 2017 11:26:17 AM

"We tell ourselves that we have prisoners’ good in mind, and the higher standards of our civilization, because we do not offer them this choice. But those standards may be less about preventing ourselves from becoming like our sinful ancestors, and more about maintaining the illusion of clean hands — while harsh punishment is still imposed, but out of sight, on souls and bodies not our own."

Preach it like it is, brother.

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