Tuesday, June 25, 2019


I was rummaging through some notes that I'd taken "back in the day," as it were, and found the following description of people serving time in prison.

They lose their humanity. They lose their full range of emotions. Their personality disappears. They (sic) eyes become blank. They seek deep, deep under what we know as depression. There is no enjoyment of even the smallest things because there are no small things to enjoy.
I wish that I'd thought to save more of the context of, and a link to, this statement, because it seems to be part of a much longer missive, and I'd like to read the rest of it. But, unfortunately, I didn't, and so this anonymous snippet will likely remain so, as a quick Google search of parts of it didn't reveal a source. But in that same series of notes, I also found the following argument for life in prison, as opposed to capital punishment.
We will avoid inflicting irreversible penalties.
This speaks to one of the strange contradictions of the criminal justice system as we think of it in the United States; the idea that the effects of being subjected to "dehumanizing" conditions, with all of the losses that the writer lists above, is reversible. Part of it it, I think, that we don't consider such mental and emotional damage, the loss of emotionality, personality and enjoyment, as being themselves part of the penalty that we exact from people when they are incarcerated. And if one of the arguments against sentencing people to death for crimes committed is that we don't want to be in a position of having done something irreversible for a crime that it turns out was not committed (at least not by the person convicted of it), that likely applies to a much wider range of sentences than might be initially evident.

The fact that death is forever is relative when compared to spending years behind bars. The only time I have ever heard anyone articulate that it's possible to somehow completely reverse the effect of a long period of imprisonment is in reference to the death penalty. Society can accept the fact the a person who spends a year in a combat zone can return and never be the same as they were when they left, but then determine that there is nothing "irreversible" about being in prison for a significant stretch of time?

This is the reason why I am dubious of the idea that there should be a financial benefit to doing away with capital punishment. The lengthy process of appeals and reviews that are mandated for sentencing someone to be executed should simply be applied to those sentenced to die behind bars. The idea that there is an absolutely reversible penalty, one that is somehow "safe" to apply to an innocent person is a fallacy.

There is an argument to made that being wrongly imprisoned for twenty years, and then put to death is no worse than being wrongly imprisoned for forty years, and then succumbing to old age. And no system is, or can be, perfect. False positives will occur, and they will condemn those who are innocent of the accusations leveled against them. While the late Justice Antonin Scalia (I believe) was excoriated for this stand, I believe that he was fundamentally correct when he effectively noted that there is no Constitutional right for the innocent to not be imprisoned. The standards deal with due process and reasonable doubt. Factual innocence is not part of the equation; if it could be reliably determined whether or not someone was genuinely guilty, a number of problems would have been resolved by now.

I don't know if there will ever be broad acceptance of the idea that there is no such thing as a reversible penalty. But time, once taken from a person, can never be returned to them. In that sense, it is like life itself.

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