Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Death Penalty: What Is Rare?

This is the third in a series of posts about the death penalty from a Catholic perspective. 

The topic for today comes from this passage from the Catechism:
Today, in fact, given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender 'today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'

Let's not kid ourselves:  It was a bad idea to write a passage about the conditions prevailing "today", if "today" means anything other than "during the course of our natural lives" or "before the eschaton".  To the extent that secular leaders want to show respect to the Catholic Church, they need only say, "Well, that may have been true in the mid 90's when it was written, but everything is different today, especially after 9-11."  Count on it -- much more shameless claims are made all the time. 

My main topic here, though, is the word "rare".  Consider the following statement:
Circumstances which require people to be rescued by boat from their roofs are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
Is the statement true?  No doubt.  It may well be that on most years no one needs to be saved from a rooftop.  But there is a real and practical difference between circumstances that are practically non-existent and circumstances that are non-existent; those people who find themselves stranded on a roof need help sent, not to have that aid denied because someone thinks thinks "rarely" means "never".

In fact, it can be argued that executions in the US are indeed rare -- too rare, at any rate, to be an effective deterrent.  From 1976--2005 (inclusive), there were 11080 killings by police that were ruled justifiable homicide, but from 1976--September 20, 2012 there were only 1305 legal executions.  A violent criminal is roughly 10 times more likely to be killed by police than to be executed after a trial; if he is not deterred by the greater risk, he will not be deterred by the lesser.

Just like people have to be rescued as individuals, they have to be tried as individuals, not as some kind of statistical average.  We must neither increase the number of executions because it is "too low" nor decrease the number of executions simply because it is "too high". 

Is the statement that executions should be rare then completely without value?  No.  It is something like a spell-checker.  When a spell-checker indicates a word is misspelled, it does not necessarily mean it is a mistake; it may just be a word that is not in the spell-checker's dictionary.  For example, the word "eschaton", which I have used above, is not in my spell-checker's dictionary. A spell-checker does not tell you the word is wrong, it warns you to double-check.  In a similar way, whenever the number of executions trends noticeably upward or there is any question whether executions can be accurately described as "rare", it is time to double-check the criminal justice system to make sure this is not due to errors.

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