End the Death Penalty, and Life Imprisonment?

The other day, Pope Francis yet again caused a bit of a stir:

Pope Francis called for abolition of the death penalty as well as life imprisonment, and denounced what he called a “penal populism” that promises to solve society’s problems by punishing crime instead of pursuing social justice.

“It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples’ lives from an unjust aggressor,” the pope said Oct. 23 in a meeting with representatives of the International Association of Penal Law.

“All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty. And this, I connect with life imprisonment,” he said. “Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.”

The pope noted that the Vatican recently eliminated life inprisonment from its own penal code…

Of course, it was Pope St. John Paul II who first asserted that the death penalty has to go – and I admit that it was this which turned me away from the death penalty. Now, we are being challenged again – but it is a harder pill for people to swallow, even those who oppose the death penalty.

The immediate and rather natural reaction to this is that there appear to be some people who simply cannot live in society – they are so clearly violent and dangerous that no one wishes to risk having them out there to kill again. It is easy to bring to mind people like Ted Bundy and go, “ok, so we won’t kill people like that – but we can’t ever let a man like that out, again!”. This is reasonable. But upon reflection, I’m taking a bit of a different view – and I think I see where the Pope is coming from.

Mercy triumphs over justice – so it goes in James, 2:13. Prior to that, James notes that merciless judgement will be meted out to those who don’t show mercy. In other words, if we are not merciful, no mercy will be shown to us. And, guys and gals, no matter how good any of us think we are, we are all in desperate need of mercy. And, so, while we must have justice, it must always be tempered with mercy. We must always be willing to forgive – yes, even someone like a Ted Bundy sort of killer. To me, this means we must never shut the door upon anyone – even the very worst among us retain a moral claim upon us; perhaps far less than everyone else, but it is still there. Executing someone very firmly shuts the door upon a person – once the person drops though the hang man’s door, there isn’t any chance for that person to redeem himself, nor for us to forgive him. Sending someone to prison for life – without possibility of parole – also shuts the door. Not as firmly as death, of course, but still pretty firmly. A man sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole has little incentive to change – to become contrite and seek forgiveness.

I’ve seen the TV shows of long-term prisoners who are nothing but trouble – they are sent to what amount to prisons within prisons where they are kept in isolation, lest they lash out against guards and other prisoners. To be sure, the sort of treatment these men get is merited – as is the death penalty merited by those who receive it. We’re not accusing anyone of committing an injustice by executing a murderer, or imprisoning for life a hardened criminal. But is such a thing merciful? I’m always reminded here of that conversation between Gandalf and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings:

Frodo: “He deserves death.”

Gandalf: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends…”

So, let us not say that we are being cruel or unreasonable in punishing those who do wrong. Other than the rare instance of a complete miscarriage of justice, those who are housed in our prisons have done wrong things – some of them quite horribly wrong. But let us not deal out death in punishment lightly, nor take away all hope from those who we decide not to kill.

It is good to keep in mind why we have life in prison without parole – because back in the 70’s nitwit liberals had essentially set up a situation where even a first degree murderer could be out on parole in as little as seven years. We had case after case of a released murderer doing the same crime again, when had that criminal still been in prison, the second (or third, or fourth) victim would still be alive. Fed up with this nonsense, we went “law and order” and got laws which ensured that the worst criminals would never get out. But because we allowed liberals to err too far one way, it was no justification for us to err the other (and, full disclosure, I backed the implementation of those “no parole” laws). We needed to strike a balance but we went too far the other way.

One of the first changes I would make to criminal justice is to cease imprisoning non-violent offenders. This would allow us vastly more resources in the prison system to deal effectively with the worst criminals. Time spent guarding people in for drug possession or embezzlement is time not spent guarding the violent drug-gang member, you see? If a person wasn’t physically harmed, I’d have it as the rule that no prison time will be imposed (I’d have exceptions for recidivists – someone who is not just a thief, but just keeps on stealing no matter how many times we’ve shown mercy…after a while, its time for such a person to spend some time in jail). I’d have an exception to the no-prison rule for non-violent crimes in regards to those who violate the public trust – elected and appointed officials of our government who violate the law should spend a very, very long time in jail. But for the petty drug possession or the guy who simply jumped bail on a non-violent crime? Find some other way to secure justice – don’t waste jail space. Don’t actually hurt a person, don’t go to jail: general rule.

For violent crimes which are not of a sexual nature or don’t result in death, I’d have a person away for no more than 20 years. For violent acts which are of a sexual nature or result in death, it would still be a life sentence, but with the change that even such a person could, in theory, eventually obtain release – indeed, full pardon under certain circumstances. Here’s how it would work.

If you are sent to prison for a violent crime, your first 10 years are to be spent in, well, what will amount to some pretty miserable conditions. Forget about TV and radio and exercise rooms and cells and so forth. Think in terms of wooden barracks surrounded by electrified barbed wire and food which, while sufficient to maintain health, is plain and monotonous. And work. Lots and lots of work. If necessary, just make-work, but work all the time. Hard, demanding, physical labor – 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year. I can think of lots of projects the prisoners can work on – just in making our interstate highways look more artistic with stone work and landscaping can occupy a lot of people in very hard work for many, many years. Others can think of different projects. But even if there’s no project at the moment, then out the prisoners go into the prison yard to break rocks, if nothing else.

Now, naturally, the prisoners so sentenced are going to be inclined to rebel against this regime. But here’s the kicker – if they rebel, if they break the rules (which will include having any contraband, harming any other prisoner or guard, etc) then their ten years in this position starts over again from that day. In other words, if they ever want to get out of this miserable place, then their only way is to behave – and as they buck and kick against it, they can be kept in irons in non-work hours, be given a ball and chain to carry around…things like that which make misery even more miserable…and the prisoners willing to do anything to get relief, even obey the rules. I’m sure they’ll press the envelope, but other than the completely wicked, most will eventually calm down. Especially as even in this 10 years of misery, greater privileges will be assigned to people as the length of their good behavior increases (like, say, being allowed visitors after 1 year of good behavior; being able to shop in a commissary for small luxuries after 3 years…and, of course, fear of losing these small privileges would keep the prisoners in line as time goes on).

After completing 10, the prisoners are then transferred to a regular prison – now they can watch a bit of TV, have a more varied diet, read newspapers; they no longer have to work, but can volunteer for work, for which they’ll be paid 50% of minimum wage, credited to their account for use in the prison commissary, but also for use should they ever get out. Because now they have a chance of getting out – even the worst. Remember, they’ve now behaved themselves for 10, solid years. They didn’t so much as back-talk a guard or even take a swing against another prisoner. These people, in order to just get into regular prison, have behaved better than 99% of the people outside of prison. Clearly, they’ve learned some lessons; if they haven’t learned them, then they’re still doing their endless 10 years breaking rocks until they do. If they get through the ten years in regular prison with no problems – and, remember, a violation of the rules still starts the first 10 all over again…in other words, a man who has spent his 10 and now done 9 in regular prison who, say, attacks a guard will be sent right back to Day One in the 10 years of breaking rocks. Massive incentive to not do anything like that – then we send them to a minimum security prison. A very light regime. A sort of pre-school for parole. Now the prisoner is looking forward to getting out – will he get out? Not for at least 5 more years. Life means you’ll do at least 25 years. But once past the 25 years – and remember, this is now 25 years without having broken a rule; not having broken a law, as it were – based upon the considered judgement of a parole board, a prisoner can be released. Paroled – and if he breaks a law, other than a misdemeanor (you know, speeding or some such), then he’s right back on Day One of the 10 years of breaking rocks. After 10 years of parole, if there’s been no problem, he’s now pardoned. Time is done. Paid his debt to society. See ya (for those sentence to non-life terms, I’d have it start with 5 years breaking rocks – now, it could be that the criminal will do his entire 20 years breaking rocks because he never wises up…at least when he gets out he’ll be 20 years older, hopefully a little wiser and, remember, he didn’t kill anyone).

I think by the combination of not jailing the non-violent and using a very harsh stick with a very nice carrot on the violent, we’ll have the proper mix of justice and mercy. Remember, someone in prison who is just incorrigible is going to live out his days breaking rocks. But even so, once a person gets into the minimum security prison, there is no requirement that he be released. So, maybe a Ted Bundy type would still be kept there if the prison psychiatrists note that he’s still a sociopath and thus a danger. But even for someone like him, its still better than breaking rocks. Obedience still leads to mercy – if not freedom, then at least a bearable regime. And the whole incentive of the system is to learn to obey the rules, and by doing so (hopefully) come to a real understanding of the crime committed, and genuine contrition for having committed it. And for someone who is in prison but who kills, we still have the death penalty available, at need.

Anyways, that is what I think would be a good system. What do you think? I’m really interested to hear because I do think we have to consider carefully what we’re doing and what we want to accomplish as regards criminal justice.

6 thoughts on “End the Death Penalty, and Life Imprisonment?

  1. Amazona October 25, 2014 / 7:26 pm

    When a penalty for a crime was swift and strong, such as being sentenced to a chain gang, that was motivation to avoid a repeat experience. What we have learned from touchy-feely approaches to imprisonment should have taught us something.

    Sure it was a worthwhile experiment. We considered the possibility that gentler system, one with yummy food and weight rooms to burn off energy and libraries and cable TV and so on might humanize criminals. But it didn’t. It just made prison a pretty decent place to hang out between crimes, and to hone their criminal craft by learning from others. Then we had to add free porn, and unlimited cable so prisoners could wallow in violence in the name of entertainment, and internet access.

    I am not interested in “motivating” people to be better people.

    And I remind you that outside the rather narrow boundaries of Catholic dogma, a pope’s opinion is just that—–an opinion. I think the concept of papal infallibility is bunk, but even if you buy into it, it doesn’t extend beyond the dogma of the Church. Pope Francis might be a nice enough guy—-he might even be a holy man——but he has started to opine on things far beyond his designated area of expertise, and I am losing a lot of respect for him.

    I will trade capital punishment for abortion. That is, while I believe the truly guilty should be punished even as far as losing their lives, I would agree to ban capital punishment if the trade off is that we also stop taking wholly innocent lives. But I think our duty to society is far far greater than our duty to depraved people who have willingly abandoned humanity to indulge inhuman cravings, destroying lives in the process. I see no responsibility for the happiness or mental health of these people. I don’t care if they are unhappy. I don’t care if confinement makes them even crazier. I just don’t care. They made the decisions they made, to ruin the lives of innocent people, to take the lives of some and destroy the happiness of others, knowing that they might end up in solitary confinement and they decided that they were willing to take that risk.

    I would have a recording in each cell on Death Row, and in Solitary, that plays every now and then, that says something like: “John Jones, this is just a reminder that you are here because you inflicted intolerable pain upon an innocent human being and then took her life. While you are feeling unhappy about being deprived of the things you miss, remember that she has been taken from this life and deprived of much more.” I would find a way to constantly, day in and day out, relate the experience of being in solitary, or facing death, to the reasons for being there. There should be a constant reminder that anyone who would do what he did deserves no better than what he is getting.

    At that point society’s only responsibility is to keep them from hurting anyone else. I am fine with basic humanitarian treatment——-medical care, adequate nourishment, being warm enough or cool enough to not suffer . I am OK with pastoral visits from clergy, in case there is a genuine desire to come to a relationship with God—but not willing to put the life or well being of a single other person at risk by depending on a claim of conversion and letting the criminal out in public again. Ever. Reading material should be limited to material which has the potential of improving the mind and/or spirit, such as Tolstoy, Cervantes, Dickens, the Bible. I find no reason to entertain these people.

    Very very few people end up on Death Row, or in lifetime sentences, in one leap from decency to depravity. No, there has usually been a pattern of escalating evildoing, until the ultimate penalty has been earned. At that point there is no turning back, nor should there be.

    • M. Noonan October 25, 2014 / 11:42 pm

      Well, my plan provides for no leaps – a person would do 25 years before there is even a chance of getting out. And, as noted, if they prove incorrigible, then they’ll just keep breaking rocks until they kick the bucket. That is pretty harsh – but it will be the choice of the prisoner.

      I realize that my views are definitely formed by Catholic social teaching – but it is also informed by the lack of mercy in our society. It was said of the era of the barbarian invasions (from, say, 400 to 900 AD) that it was, “a sword age, a wind age, a wolf age; no longer is there mercy among men”. That is how I view our times. We, on the whole, are pitiless. And not just in war and crime, but all too often in our day to day lives. Of course, the most merciless are our liberals – they being the furthest removed from Judeo-Christian ideals. It was, indeed, mercilessness on the part of liberals which had them thinking that the best way to deal with a murderer was to let him out after seven years…after all, the liberals who let him out would almost certainly never run afoul of the released murderer. So it is with things like liberal gun control efforts: the people who most need the guns are the people liberals deny the guns, thus mercilessly leaving the poor at the mercy of hardened criminals.

      You are correct that one doesn’t go immediately from decent citizen to, say serial killer – but under my plan such a killer probably never would get out, but we still want to (a) show that we are merciful even to the merciless and (b) we want that criminal, once incarcerated, to be either completely cooperative or so chained (and literally, if necessary) that there is no opportunity for his wickedness to assert itself.

      • Amazona October 26, 2014 / 12:00 pm

        I think that providing for the basic needs for survival—-shelter, food, warmth, safety—IS merciful. I also note that millions of innocent people in this world have few or none of these things, so the basic standard of living for the permanently incarcerated is already better than that experienced by countless people who have not preyed on their fellow man, have not purposely inflicted harm on others, have not turned their backs on their own humanity.

        I suggest that much of your idea is based on the fallacy that this kind of criminal is pretty much just like we are, and can be motivated by the same things. I disagree. I can see how a normal person could snap, could be driven by some circumstance to commit the kind of crime that would result in capital punishment or life in prison—a father avenging the torture and murder of a child, for example. Yes, someone like this might benefit from the possibility of earning a partial reprieve from a life sentence. But the kind of mind that seeks out the sensations gleaned from hurting others simply does not work that way. That kind of mind is focused solely on getting what it wants, and freedom to continue preying on others can be a powerful motivator for someone like this to play the game. This is not a redeemable mind.

        I think the real purpose of a plan like yours, or the idea in a Colorado prison to let all the worst prisoners out in an open unsupervised area together for several hours a day, is really about looking for a way for US to feel better. It is hard, sometimes, to bear the weight of difficult decisions, and this seems to me like an effort to have one foot on the dock and one foot in the boat, to be able to sentence the worst among us to serious consequences and then to bleed off some of the pressure some of us might feel at making that decision by putting in token escape routes, so we don’t have to feel like big meanies.

        As for “mercy”, what kind of mercy is it to burden victims with the possibility that the person who killed their loved ones may someday be free to kill again? What kind of mercy is it to tell society in general that it may have to face the threat of a callous murderer set free in its midst? Mercy, for victims and society in general, is the security of knowing that some dangers, at least, are permanently removed.

  2. Dc Sharpthree October 31, 2014 / 5:28 pm

    Current Problems: Catholic Death Penalty Teaching:
    Most recent Catechism (last amended 2003)

    Any good Catholic may disagree with the Church’s newest teaching on the death penalty (1) and remain a Catholic in good standing (1) and can find that (a) the primary and eternal purpose of sanction is justice and/or redress, as confirmed in this latest CCC, and that (b) justice should not be and cannot be subjugated by a secondary purpose of sanction, the important concern of “defense of society” and that (c) the death penalty offers a greater degree of protection for society and individuals (2) , that being the protection of the potential innocents harmed, now spared, and potential repeat unjust aggressors, also, now spared, by preventing them from harming even more innocents and , thereby, putting their eternal lives more at risk (3&4).

    Saint Pope John Paul II (SPJPII) made a prudential judgement, within Evangelium Vitae (EV), and such judgement was factually and rationally in error and then those errors were placed within the CCC.

    1) The first sentence from CCC 2267, being:

    “The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.”

    Response from two Catholic scholars:

    “The most reasonable conclusion to draw from this discussion is that, once again, the Catechism is simply wrong from an historical point of view. Traditional Catholic teaching did not contain the restriction enunciated by Pope John Paul II”.(5)

    “The realm of human affairs is a messy one, full of at least apparent inconsistency and incoherence, and the recent teaching of the Catholic Church on capital punishment—vitiated, as I intend to show, by errors of historical fact and interpretation—is no exception.” (5)

    SPJPII states that we can use the death penalty only “when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.”

    Not only is this a rational error, it conflicts with 2000 years of Catholic teaching.

    As taught in this very same CCC, redress, justice and just retribution are primary and eternal. Public defense is secular and utilitarian and, therefore, must always be secondary to the primary, eternal truth of justice.

    Yet, both the CCC and SPJPII are stating that we must replace eternal truths with secular utilitarianism. Obviously an error.

    Furthermore, SPJPII, somehow, only lists one of the Catholic Church’s four foundations for sanction (defense) neglecting all others – another error. Justice, redress, just retribution are always primary.

    A significant rational error is that SPJPII attempts to erase execution, if it is not the “only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings”. There is nothing within reason or Catholic teachings that says we must either include or exclude a method of sanction, because there may be another “practicable way to defend the lives of human beings”

    Our obligation is to find the “best way to defend the lives of human beings”, which, in many cases, means the death penalty, which better protects innocents than do lesser sanctions, in three ways (3), and is a sanction which more corresponds with justice, the primary function, in some cases.

    Both the utilitarian and eternal truths of capital punishment are in conflict with SPJPII’s pronouncements. SPJPII would have us sacrifice more innocents, by sparing more guilty murderers, putting more innocents in peril, just as he puts more unjust aggressors in greater eternal peril, as detailed (2-4).

    2) The middle sentence within CCC 2267:

    “If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

    Flannery and Remick’s comments (5) apply, here, as well.

    The traditional, philosophical and eternal teachings remain the same, that the Church has and does recognize that the imposition of the death penalty is based upon the sanctity of life and is in conformity with the dignity of the human person (3), both innocent murders victims and guilty unjust aggressors/murderers.

    Then, of course, we have this, demonstrating how completely bizarre this new teaching is:

    Also within the same CCC as 2267, we have CCC 2260: “For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning…. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” “This teaching remains necessary for all time.”

    SPJPII says if “bloodless means are sufficient” than we must shun the death penalty.

    SPJPII chose his dependence on wildly varying secular criminal justice systems (4), defense of society, over this eternal commandment.

    In addition, SPJPII choses to leave all unjust murderers, alive, with the well known outcome, guaranteeing many more innocents will be murdered (2-4), putting many more unjust murderers at greater eternal risk, as we know so many will murder or, otherwisew, harm, again (2-4).

    If his concern is protection of innocents, SPJPII would have said, “We will use that sanction which best protects the innocents”, but he didn’t. He only used a “sufficient” standard, when he should have used a “best” standard, if protecting innocent lives is your primary concern and if a sanction commensurate with the crime which, in many cases, both by utility and justice, will be the death penalty (2-5).

    3) Factually, we know that the last sentence from CCC 2267 is false:

    “Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’ [John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 56.]

    “In fact”, the overwhelming evidence is that, given all known realities of the State’s actions to repress known unjust aggressors, that the proper protection of innocents from unjust aggressors is, extremely often, not the case (5), as we all know (5).

    “Putting more innocents at risk, by repeat harm from known unjust aggressors and putting those same known unjust aggressors at greater eternal risk, by allowing them to harm more innocents, as we know many will do.(2-4)” is the result of this newest EV and CCC teaching.

    The factual support for this is overwhelming, as detailed (4), and as both CCC and EV avoided.

    In addition, sinners do not redeem “themselves”, a truly bizarre statement. Redemption comes from the grace and mercy of God.

    Flannery and Remick’s comments (5) apply, here, as well.


    These newest death penalty teachings, within EV and the CCC, occurred at the exact time when SPJPII and the Church were involved in the horrendous priest sex scandal, worldwide, which so clearly demonstrated the human error of allowing unjust aggressors to harm innocents, over and over, again. The Church had the “means” to protect the innocent. She just didn’t . . . and it took years of lawsuits and heartbreak for the Church to, finally, wake up and become honest.

    It is as if the Church never got the message, now repeating that same horror, over and over, again.

    In the course of human affairs, with the priest sex scandal, , for anyone who wants to learn, what we think is “sufficient” is, often, a disaster – evidently a lesson lost within EV and CCC and, now, repeated, with Her newest death penalty teachings.

    Tragic and incomprehensible.

    1) From Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict, then Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

    (paragraph 3) “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

    from Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles, part of memorandum sent by Cardinal Ratzinger to Cardinal McCarrick, made public July 2004.

    2) The Death Penalty: Do Innocents Matter? A Review of All Innocence Issues

    3) The Death Penalty: Mercy, Expiation, Redemption & Salvation

    4) Catechism & State Protection

    5) “Capital Punishment and the Law”, Ave Maria Law Review, 2007 (30 pp), by Kevin L. Flannery S.J., Consultor of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (since 2002) and Ordinary Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome); and Mary Ann Remick Senior Visiting Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics andCulture (University of Notre Dame)

    • M. Noonan October 31, 2014 / 6:14 pm

      It is not a matter of dogma that Catholics must oppose the death penalty – but it is a teaching by the Pope, which should not lightly be set aside.

      • Amazona October 31, 2014 / 8:04 pm

        Those who revere the Pope should certainly respect his opinion. But even Catholics have to remember that the infallibility of the Pope extends only as far as Catholic dogma, and beyond that he is merely expressing his feelings or thoughts or opinions.

        For example, I think any Catholic clergyman, especially the Pope, has the right to say that no Catholic who supports actions that blatantly defy Catholic teachings (such as abortion) should be allowed to receive the sacraments. But this Pope tends to make wide, sweeping comments that I think reflect his personal opinions and feelings more than religious teachings. And when he does, I find no reason to pay any more attention to them than I would to the efforts of many others who also feel they should be telling us what to do.

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