The Associated Press reports that Texas leads the nation in putting to death 344 inmates since 1982, the most of any state, and 8 so far this year.
Now Republican Governor Rick Perry may soon be signing a bill that would allow Texas courts to bestow a lifelong punishment of prison without parole instead of death. (At the moment, the only option instead of the death penalty is life with parole possible in 40 years.) The session considering the bill is set to end next week, May 30.
Tony Goolsby, a Republican sponsor of the bill, said “If you want to punish a person who violated the law, you let them go to bed every night and wake up and see steel bars, a cold concrete floor and a stainless steel potty. That’s their life until they die.” Well done, Tony.
But many lawmakers and prosecutors are skeptical of life without parole, saying it would decrease the number of death sentences and their ability to deter crime. They want death.
“If you take away the ultimate penalty, maybe it’s not enough of an incentive to stay out of trouble,” said Representative Beverly Woolley, a Houston female Republican. Well said, Beverly. A pat on your backs! The purity of your lives is an example for us all!
Now let’s look at some statistics from the Bureau of Justice:
In 2003, 6.9 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at yearend 2003 — 3.2% of all U.S. adult residents or 1 in every 32 adults.
State and Federal prison authorities had under their jurisdiction 1,470,045 inmates at yearend 2003: 1,296,986 under State jurisdiction and 173,059 under Federal jurisdiction.
Local jails held or supervised 762,672 persons awaiting trial or serving a sentence at midyear 2003. About 71,400 of these were persons serving their sentence in the community.
California, Texas and the federal system contributed 1 in 3. And all of the prisons were operating at full or over capacity.
These facts are nothing to be proud of, the numbers are increasing, and more to the point, it just doesn’t work. A clue for a solution is to be found in the term “correctional facilities”.
The reasons a person would perpetrate a crime are many and complex, and who in our society can say they would have acted differently given the same start in life, the same parents, the same foster homes, the same education, the same relatives, the same treatment from the courts, and the same set of other circumstances?
This site contains the last words of the about to die on death row, together with their crimes. One is struck by the sobering dignity with which they depart this earth.
The founding fathers, in the creation of this country, chose to continue the British system of justice, but nobody would claim that it is static. It’s ever evolving, and can be changed to fit the times in which we live, and that time has come. It is now!
All Wrong. New Solution
This is my opinion, but I believe they’ve all got it all wrong.
Prison time and the death sentence have always been approached as punishment, and therefore, presumably, ample motivation to stay out of trouble. The opposite should be the case.
The motivation to stay out of trouble should be the chance to make a new life.
And death, if it happens, should not be seen as punishment, but rather as the forfeiture of a life from this earth, without acrimony, and without ceremony.
To be very specific, my way it would work like this:
The word “punishment” would be banished from the language, and replaced with “penalty” and “forfeited opportunity”.
1. Prison terms would be up to and capped at ten years, easily renewable, in all cases.
2. The standard of guilt would be that used at present for civil trials, that is “Preponderance of the Evidence” to persuade the judge or jury that facts are probably more one way than the other.
3. Juries would need only ten members out of twelve to convict, making room for those with an agenda.
4. Death as an option would be administered to prisoners who have simply given up and refuse to avail themselves of new opportunity to change. But the method of death would be quiet and without ceremony, administered during a sleep from which they never wake, and without any sense of vengeance. An admission of failure on the part of the prisoner and society to rescue a life.
5. Defending lawyers would be held to the same standard currently charged only to prosecutors, that is, to seek justice instead of a “not guilty” verdict.
In my system, then, convicted criminals would be imprisoned for up to ten years, with the chance to turn their lives around and start over, upon a signed statement at their request, and a promise. This is important, that the process for help and change would be initiated by them, and not by the authorities offering it to them.
Their case would come up for reconsideration before a panel at the end of their sentence, and in the absence of positive proof of their real effort to improve themselves, they would easily remain incarcerated for up to another ten years. It could go on this way for their entire lives. Their choice, not ours.
The point is, it would be much easier to convict, and there would be no more Robert Blakes or O. J. Simpsons getting off scot free under the present win all/lose all system (and follow along with the current Phil Spector murder case, comes in threes?).
The distance between all black guilt and all white innocence would be covered by a considerable grey scale of many shades of guilt, which would have appropriate penalties attached to them.
If a person has decided on a life of crime, then they could be incarcerated their entire lives, or choose death. Their choice.
But this writer believes that everyone is born into this world with a desire to belong, to be loved, and to succeed. Their circumstances bring about the changes that can lead to robbery, rape, murder and other crimes. They will pay for this, and will have the chance to start again, to earn a new life. Their choice. And if mistakes are made, then the truly innocent can still look forward to a life of freedom. And no longer would we see victims of rape or robbery being killed because of the perpetrator’s fear of being identified and receiving society’s ultimate punishment.
Of course, the educated crazies, the mass murderers, the spree killers, the bombers, perhaps many of the sexual predators, with their unalterable mindsets, would not be let out, and would be the first to agree that they cannot be redeemed. Perhaps they would do us the favor of requesting to end their own lives. They should have that option.
In concluding this discussion, one might look to Joan of Arc, who said it best at her trial nearly six hundred years ago. Her words were carefully preserved for us in the transcripts, and we can learn from them as they echo down through the centuries.
At first she settled with the court for her immediate freedom, on their terms, which meant sacrificing her beliefs.
But then the court reneged, and she was given life in prison without the possibility of parole. The well-known atheist, George Bernard Shaw, wrote a play about this which I got to know well, because I directed it for Broadway. Listen to her words to the magistrate:
“You think that life is nothing but not being dead? It is not the bread and water I fear. I can live on bread. It is no hardship to drink water if the water be clean. But to shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so that I can never again climb the hills. To make me breathe foul damp darkness, without these things I cannot live. And by your wanting to take them away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your council is of the devil.”
In response, her judges cried “Light your fire, to the stake with her.”
And so she chose the death penalty. Her reasons, and her choice.
I believe that our prisons would begin to empty, and the number of prisoner deaths might even increase, and society would be relieved of guilt.
If the legislatures who make the laws want further convincing, think of the bottom line, the billions of dollars that would be saved, both in prison costs and by the contributions to the common good of those properly released back to society. And the lawyers too, may of whom would be returned to society to do an honest day’s work in some other field of labor.
And as a bonus, we would become a truly civilized and maybe gentler society worthy of improved world opinion.