By Michael Perry
I've tried lying to myself over and over
"If I can just hold on, I will be free..."
But the truth is like a hand constantly slapping my face...
OPEN YOUR EYES!
CAN'T YOU SEE!
YOU BELONG TO ME!
The Impact of and Motivation for the Practice of Capital Punishment in the United States
By Bernie Reddy
In December last year a Congressman from Ohio named Kucinich introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty - the Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act of 2005, which is co-sponsored by 39 members of Congress. "The death penalty is not an effective deterrent," Representative Kucinich says. "Homicide rates in states with the death penalty are no lower than rates in abolitionist states. Of the twelve states without the death penalty, ten have murder rates below the national average." Representative Kucinich says he believes violent offenders ought to be punished but that capital punishment "in not a deterrent, allows innocent people to be executed, and marginalizes the United States in the fight for human rights in the International community." There have been 122 people released from death row in the U.S. since we reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Looking at this data, we need to strongly challenge the death penalty as an effective deterrent.
But let's consider another possible relationship between executions and murders. We know that only very few people are aware when someone is being executed, that it's almost a media secret, and that it's pretty unlikely to deter people who aren't even faced with the picture of what might happen to them if they murder someone. Given that it is not effectively represented to those who would murder, it appears not to deter the people who end up on death row. But if capital punishment does not deter these individuals, it is possible that it actually encourages the kinds of conditions that make capital crime more likely. Violent, unjust societies are more likely to create violent citizens than societies that take seriously the struggles of their poor people and their political dissidents. If the state is violent, its people will be inclined to accept violence as a solution to social problems. In this context, it becomes apparent that the prison, in general, might not be so much a "corrections" system as a profitable punishing machine, whatever the good intentions of administrators. We might look at the treatment of animals raised for slaughter to understand how producing and maintaining inhumane conditions receives substantial support from business interests. It's big business to build prisons, staff them, and provide services for them. If a corporation can get in involved in the prison industry, it can cut expenses by cutting health care services without having to respond to tax-payer objections. Prisoners cannot vote and have virtually no public voice in the U.S. They cannot organize to defend their basic rights, and basic liberties such as freedom of speech are denied them. They are at the mercy of an unchecked power with a vested interest in profiting from their powerlessness. A company intent on maximizing profits can cram prisoners together, feed them cheap food, deny them the rights and liberties of employees, and then take tax-payer money to do it, calling it a "correctional facility."
Has the rise in the number of prisoners reduced crime in this country? Between the mid-1940s and 1972 the proportion of people in prison remained about the same, around 100 for every 100,000 American citizens. Between 1972 and 1996 the proportion jumped to a whopping 427 people for every 100,000 Americans. This means that in the 25 years after 1972 the proportion of people who were held in prison more than quadrupled - four times as many as during the previous three decades. In actual numbers, the jump was from 200,000 prisoners to 1.2 million. Now, in the state of Texas alone the number of prisoners jumped 80,000 between the years 1991 and 1996. That's 80,000 new prisoners in 5 years. In Germany during a single one of those years there were a total of 80,000 prisoners altogether. The increase in Texas during 5 years is equal to the total in Germany. That's like adding all of Germany's prisoners to the Texas prisons in the space of 5 years. Overall, the prison rate in the U.S. went up 300% between 1968 and 1987. The next highest increase during that period was England, where the prison population increased only 45%. Hell, in Sweden the prison population actually went down during that time. (Guess whether Sweden has the death penalty.)
Now, considering this data, we can ask, has crime been reduced in this country as a result of this rise in the number of prisoners? Has prison made us safer? There were some reductions in rape, robbery, and homicide during the early 1990s, but the rise in these crimes since 1984 was greater than this reduction. For example, the number of rapes went down in the early 1990s by 12%, but it had gone up 27% since 1984. It's the same story with robbery, which went down by 22% in the early 1990s but had gone up 42% since 1984. And homicide went down in the early 1990s by 22% but had gone up 32% since 1984. The downturn in these crimes between 1991 and 1995 was not a sign that prisons were making a big difference. These things change on their own and for other, social reasons. One such reason is likely to be the economic prospects of regular citizens who would otherwise not end up in prison. So, the reductions are not a result of throwing people behind bars. Prisons do not deter in any significant sense. But they do offer a significant profit to certain kinds of business enterprises.
So it is just as likely that state-sanctioned killing makes absolutely no contribution to our efforts to protect innocent victims as that it actually reduces the number of murders in this country. Just look at the execution situation worldwide. About 85% of all executions are carried out in four or five countries. China leads the world, then Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Congo, and then the U.S., with Texas doing most of the U.S. killing. Since 1979 every year about 2 or 3 countries abolish capital punishment in 1999 East Timor, Ukraine, and Turkmenistan abolished it. But not the U.S.! Hell, 73 countries in the world have abolished all executions. There are about 13 countries that allow it only for political crimes (you know, like sedition or betraying their country), but do not execute people for street-level homicides. And 22 countries abolished the death penalty "in practice," meaning that it is legal but they have not actually carried it out for 10 years. No other western democracy kills its own citizens by law. The U.S. stands alone, in complete isolation from other liberal capitalist societies.
Suppose the prospect of being executed did deter people from murdering others. Is it reasonable to conclude that it deters such people more than life without parole would? Isn't the fear of spending the rest of your life in prison enough to scare you away from killing someone? If it is, then there is no reason to have the death penalty. Life without parole deters criminals as much as they can be deterred.
In my opinion, however, deterrence is not the motivation for the continued practice of capital punishment in the United States. Many supporters of this punishment here would not abandon their support after reflecting on the data that shows how little our executions do to secure the safety of the people. For anyone who has learned the facts about this issue, deterrence is just a mask to conceal a fondness for vengeance and an agenda of social engineering that includes the extermination of the poor to the financial gain of the rich. Let me elaborate a bit on the connection between crime and society.
Why do people commit serious crimes? I mean crimes like rape, robbery, and murder, rather than tax-evasion, computer scams, or the adoption of torture as an official policy. And I mean most of the people who do these things? There's always an exception here or there. Well, it is very likely that social factors like poverty and lack of education or opportunity have a big impact, more than the fear of punishment does. People who have some money and education don't need to take those kinds of risks to advance their own interests. People who have received the education that enables them to know what their rights are and to insist on them are not likely to be subject to the kind of police brutality and kangaroo court proceedings that the less fortunate endure. So let's think about the economic situation in this country for a minute, and see if increasing poverty might explain the homicide rate better than the lack of a sufficiently violent deterrent.
Since 1977 the after-tax income for the bottom 60% of Americans has gone down 12% but has doubled for the top 1% The gap between the wealthiest 10% and the poorest 10% in this country is higher than in any other country except Russia. Wages for non-supervisory manufacturing positions rose 75% from 1947 to 1973, but has been going down since 1973. The middle class is shrinking and makes up only about 50% of Americans now. More and more people are falling below middle class standards of living. But since 1980 the pay for a company CEO (chief executive officer) rose from 42 times what a production worker gets to 531 times as much as what that worker gets in the U.S. Steve Jobs of Apple Computer pulls down $84 million a year, and he's not alone. Compare this with Japan, where the CEO gets only $300,000 to $500,000 a year. That's the story on income, but the distribution of property in the U.S. is even more striking. The top 1% own nearly 40% of the nation's net worth. The bottom 90% own a smaller percentage than that. In other words, 90% of U.S. citizens together own less than the top 1% do. We already know who makes the decisions about punishment and who suffers the penalties. Capital punishment is part of a systemic abuse of power and wealth.
Let's now ask, how do we explain the growing gap between rich and poor, the rise in prisons with no improvement in crime rates, and the fact that the U.S. is alone in the Western world to be killing people legally? Do you hear "lynching," too? Is there an echo from the times of racist lynch mobs? I don't even want to start up about the racism of the death penalty. Let me just say it's well documented. This country has a real ugly history of killing by lynch mob, and we just have not yet gotten over it. The wealthy have simply figured out how to do this lynching legally. They have always been trying to get the law behind them, protect their fancy cars and clear the streets clean of the havoc that is being wrought. With a little research anyone can find incidents in our history in which police and prosecutors fabricated evident or tortured suspects. This is only surprising to the ignorant.
It is easy to overlook these other viewpoints if you just watch TV or listen to the radio here. The stations that broadcast news and opinion are owned by fewer and fewer big-ass media companies, and no CEO of Time-Warner is gonna buy your point of view down there on death row. There's no money in it, and he doesn't care, anyway. So, the more the media companies are controlled by rich oil barons, the crappier your television and newspapers are gonna be, the more worthless the "news," and the more people are gonna think killing off the underclass solves the crime problem. It just ain't gonna do any good to kill. We're going to have plenty of violent crime as long as we are forcing people into poverty, cutting public assistance, and cutting taxes for the wealthy while imposing harsh prison sentences on the poor. It's time we start seeing the death penalty not as a way to prevent people from ending up on death row, but as a kind of conveyor belt, with new people coming along all the time. Everyone in a position to know is aware of this. Only the suckers still believe in executions.
For most of what I have written above I have just been assuming guilt. Let's assume that there has been due process of law and a fair trial, that the person charged is guilty of a really ugly crime. This is incredibly naïve and idealistic, but let's suppose the legal system is working nicely. It remains the case that executing people does absolutely nothing for anyone's security, that the most vulnerable in society will continue to be victimized by murderers, and that the practice of capital punishment serves only the interests of existing power.
Does capital punishment deter crime? Not any more than a decent job does. But more importantly, does it even matter that capital punishment makes us no safer? Does it matter to the beneficiaries of the death penalty and the prison industrial complex? I would emphasize that it does not matter to those who know the facts and continue to support the death penalty. It does not matter to them that the effect of executing people is to reinforce the racist distribution of wealth and resources in this country. What matters most to these people is that the voices of death row be silenced. But those voices must be heard.
Elliott Currie, Crime and Punishment in America (Henry Hold, 1998)
William Shaw and Vincent Barry, eds., Moral Issues in Business (Thomson, 2004), pp. 101-3.
Lying Witnesses and False Confessions
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Did you know...
10 women are currently on death row in Texas.