Posts tagged ‘Cruel and Unusual Punishment’

04/30/2012

Death Penalty Should Be Abolished

While Connecticut’s recent repeal of the Death Penalty made it the 17th state to do so, Capital Punishment remains available in 33 others, where the issue should now be debated, so lawmakers could perhaps realize it does not deter crime, and its ongoing use only poses unnecessary risks for those wrongfully convicted.

The argument the Death Penalty deters homicide is pure myth. Before criminals go out and pull the trigger, they do not visit the local library to research which states impose the Death Penalty, versus those that do not. They are generally not that rational. Even those who are aware of the possible punishments are not deterred, because crimes are usually committed on impulse, by people who are simply not thinking straight at the moment. The recent killing of the black boy in Florida is a good example.

If reasoning and logic actually played a role in the criminal decision-making process, one would expect reductions in homicide in the 33 states that use Capital Punishment, and increases in the 17 where it has been abolished, but statistics show exactly the opposite. In the 10 states with the highest murder rates, all of them allow the Death Penalty, but in the 10 with the lowest rates, 6 have abolished Capital Punishment. There simply is no correlation between Capital Punishment and crime rates.

Eliminating the deterrence argument reduces the debate to the issue of retribution and the nagging question of whether the legal system is capable of error. Simply stated, it is. Many wrongful convictions have been made throughout time, and with the Death Penalty, once it is applied, it is too late discover or correct errors.

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Attempts were made to abolish the Death Penalty through the Supreme Court by asking them to declare it “cruel and unusual” per se. In Furman v Georgia (1972), the Court, in a 5-4 decision, (with the four Nixon appointees dissenting), ruled the Death Penalty unconstitutional, when applied in a discriminatory manner. A new conservative majority however came back in 1976 and declared Capital Punishment was not in and of itself unconstitutional.

Since then, the Court has gradually limited the Death Penalty to homicide. In Coker v Georgia (1977), death as a punishment for the rape of an adult woman was deemed disproportionate.

The only way Capital Punishment can now be completely abolished is if the remaining 33 states repeal it. In the current political climate, this would be a very challenging objective, since right-wing politicians have shown in recent years absolutely no inclination towards even debating the topic.

The only solution is to win over one person at a time. As enough rational people become convinced of the myth of deterrence, and realize the risk of wrongful execution can never be totally eliminated, change will come. The only answer is to expand upon the following list of states that do not use Capital Punishment, by adding states like Connecticut, and another year of abolishment:

1846 Michigan
1853 Wisconsin
1887 Maine
1911 Minnesota
1957 Alaska
1957 Hawaii
1964 Vermont
1965 Iowa
1965 West Virginia
1973 North Dakota (abolished initially in 1915)
1981 District Columbia
1984 Rhode Island (abolished initially in 1852)
1984 Massachusetts
2007 New Jersey
2007 New York (abolished initially in 1966)
2009 New Mexico (abolished initially in 1969)
2011 Illinois
2012 Connecticut

05/31/2011

Prisons: The Wrong Place to Privatize

The U.S. Supreme Court (5-4) recently upheld a California Federal District Court ruling that ordered a reduction in the state’s prison population from 156,000 to 126,000, because the conditions were so overcrowded and bad, they violated the Eighth Amendment ban against Cruel and Unusual Punishment.

Although the California-owned prison facilities were designed to hold a maximum of 80,000 prisoners, the state system was operating at about 200% of capacity. In some situations, up to 54 prisoners shared a single toilet. Prisoners were also being denied minimal health care, as medical conditions were untreated, or ignored, and suicidal inmates were held in cage-like booths.

While conditions in California’s facilities were unnecessarily cruel, they were probably not unusual. Throughout the country, other states also have overcrowded substandard conditions.

Most lawyers would agree it is not easy to sue a state government, and it is even more difficult once state functions have been privatized. Unfortunately, the trend towards privatization has been growing. The Republican-controlled Florida legislature recently reduced the State Dept. of Corrections staff by 1,751 workers, and voted to privatize even more of their state prisons.

The worst problem with privatization is the Bill of Rights was created as a check against the conduct of the government. It was not written to control the behavior of private sector actors. Right-wing judges interpret the 8th Amendment ban against Cruel and Unusual Punishment as applicable only to the government.

If the California prison situation had been operated by private contractors, the prisoners’ case would have been much more difficult, since the defense attorneys would have argued the 8th Amendment simply did not apply.

Some government functions should never be privatized. Prisons are one of them. Anyone in the custody of the state must be treated humanely, but there is no guarantee of such treatment, once the state is not involved. States should not delegate the job of incarceration to private sector profiteers, as they would certainly cut financial corners even more than states like California.