Politics & Law

End game for the death penalty?

Jonathan Simon

David Garland discussed his important new book on America’s death penalty (Peculiar Institution) on BBC Radio Four’s Thinking Allowed this afternoon (listen here). Along with host Laurie Taylor and former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken (Lord) MacDonald, David focused on the paradoxes of American capital punishment in the age of abolition.

For Garland, America’s death penalty is not a reflection of our archaic commitment to blood and vengeance, but a product of a constitutional structure that places such an extraordinarily potent symbolic issue in the hands of locally elected legislatures, prosecutors, and judges (not to mention juries). The result is an extraordinary variegated institution that amounts to largely a symbolic legal statement in most states, and a reason to actually kill someone every month or so, in a couple of state (especially Texas).

While reminding us that more than a 1,000 people have been killed since the restoration of capital punishment in the late 1970s, Garland argues that the real value of capital punishment lies much more in the discursive opportunities it presents for politicians to signify their identity with vulnerable citizens, for the media to stroke existential anxieties that Americans share with most other people around the world, and in large part, to obscure the vastly larger system of mass incarceration which condemns millions to losing part of all of their lives in degrading prisons.

The happiest part of the discussion (for me) was the end where David talked about the possible path to abolition. The end game (which we are hopefully in) is all about states with symbolic death penalties choosing to abolish for cost savings issues. New Jersey and New Mexico have already done that. Illinois passed a law through its legislature but it looks like it may die on the desk of the new Republican governor. If such a process were to unfold, leaving the death penalty an all southern institution, it is possible that even a court dominated by conservatives and cautious liberals would decide that such a sectional institution was inherently cruel and usual (especially if they at least subrosa considered the international pattern).

I fear, however, there will be considerable resistance to this path by those who will argue that keeping even a symbolic death penalty is necessary to block the efforts of reformers to reduce mass incarceration by reducing lengthy sentences for non-capital murderers. This was the precisely the recent argument of conservative San Francisco pundit Debra Saunders (read her column here):

Is the answer to get rid of the death penalty because it’s too expensive? Hell, no. As soon as the death penalty is gone, thug huggers will use the same appeals system to go after life without parole.

This suggests that the campaign for abolition must become part of the larger struggle against mass incarceration rather than a special pleading that often promotes longer punishments (like life without parole).

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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Comment to "End game for the death penalty?":
    • Neville

      I live in Perth Western Australia and we have had 3 people recently who have been released after being wrongly convicted. If the death penalty had been applied it would have been tragic for the family. Two of them in prison for more than 10 years. The system doesn’t seem to have a good mechanism for reviewing cases where the evidence is not solid. 3 Police offices have resigned due to colouring the evidence that convicted them. I am but a humble Perth website designer (CMS), but I think the death penalty is unsafe for any civilised society.

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