Alas, Poor Yorick

It’s an interesting cross roads, along one path – civilization; and the other – barbaric punishment.

I’d mentioned in the earlier post, “It’s the W-Word!!!“, a statement made by Gandhi: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

There are similar quotes, by similarly great men and women, on similar topics. Another that stokes the flames is from Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civil action in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

I’ve seen the criminal justice system. I believe the criminal justice system in the United States does not work. There are statistics. There are first-hand accounts. There are horror stories.

Privatization, capitalism, dehumanization drive a criminal justice system that is unsustainable. The criminal justice bubble, if you will. A bubble that is sure a break.

And I’ve mentioned the issues I’ve had with the criminal justice system before in passing. But right now I’m thinking about the death penalty. This was prompted by the scheduled Tuesday execution of Missouri inmate Marcellus Williams. Newly discovered DNA evidence prompted the Governor to stay the execution. (As I’m working on the finishing touches of this piece, I just got a notice for an execution in my home state of Florida.)

It’s an aspect of our belief that the threat of death will keep citizens in line. That punishment for crimes is the most obvious deterrent. If you can create a punishment harsh enough, eventually it will inevitably prevent all crime. Yet that doesn’t seem logical.

Anyway you slice it, here the numbers are skewed.

A recent study by Professor Michael Radelet and Tracy Lacock of the University of Colorado found that 88% of the nation’s leading criminologists do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime.”

Personally, I am an ardent detractor of the death penalty. From a moral standpoint, the taking of someone’s life is something that I will not support. (In a kind of extremist view, I admit I did go vegetarian last year.)

Coming at this from a religious standpoint, I think of the various conservative Christians who will decry abortion, yet at the same time demand retributive justice. This post from Christian Today, 2002, gives you a glimpse:

“Many evangelical christians believe that when it comes to wrongdoers (or criminals), the state’s first task is to make them suffer for the wrong they have done. Whether the lash, or exile from one’s homeland, or a stretch on the rack, or exposure to public shame (The Scarlet Letter), or confinement in jail—or even the noose—punishment is expected.

Is there a Christian principle from which retributive justice is derived? Retributive justice did not arise from any Christian principle; almost every pre-Christian society dealt with wrongdoers by causing them pain. Even so, retributive justice is supported by biblical example.”

A commonly cited verse for retributive punishment is Exodus 21:23:

“But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

And yet, I’ve heard it taught that even this was to encourage leniency in punishment. Prior to the Torah, death would be a common punishment for many crimes. Then Jesus came along, and theoretically upended the whole system. “Love thy enemy”, “turn the other cheek”, et al.

It’s believed now that most religious systems argue for grace and mercy when meting out punishments. Yet, Christians in America have been at the forefront of hateful behaviors. Radical Islamists vie for power and incite fear through terrorist acts. And some Hasidic Jews are still accused of misogynistic treatment of their wives, moving into the realm of domestic abuse.

We don’t seem to have it down yet.

Currently thirty-two states have the death penalty. There are right now over thirteen-hundred people on death row in the US. And from this fact sheet, it seems that roughly 61% of the polled Americans would be favorable to alternatives to the penalty. It’s my hope that eventually we’ll move from this form of retributive justice, in favor of more humane treatment of our citizenry.

One thought on “Alas, Poor Yorick

  1. I just finished a study on lynching by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and this book shows how America abandoned lynching for capital punishment to continue to maintain white racial superiority like lynchings had been used to instill fear and submission into black Americans. Check out that organization. I think you will be moved by them.

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