Several developments over the last three months seem to indicate that our society is at a moment of decision regarding capital punishment. It behooves us, therefore, to think seriously about this issue and clarify the very muddy waters people have made of it. As I explained in my previous column, there are five basic purposes to a criminal justice system: incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, deterrence, and symbolism. Between the two alternative murder penalties of execution and life in prison without the possibility of parole (LIPWPP), we saw that incapacitation and rehabilitation are essentially moot issues. Retribution, however, strongly favors capital punishment. Let’s continue our analysis.
Deterrence is the goal of giving people who might otherwise be willing to commit a crime a strong enough disincentive to prevent them from making this choice.
This is the most complex part of the discussion and the part most misunderstood by nearly every commentator on both sides.
Given the frequency with which they contradict each other, studies have proven useless in answering definitively whether capital punishment deters. Therefore, it’s left to reason to decide, and reason rather counter-intuitively indicates that capital punishment does not deter. Despite wholeheartedly supporting capital punishment myself, I think that emphasizing deterrence is the signature error most of my intellectual allies make when discussing the issue.
Capital punishment does not deter because the capital offender is not the right sort of person.
There are three kinds of people in any society: the good, the barbaric, and the rational. Good people are self-governing enough that they either do not want to commit crimes or else restrain themselves morally from committing them. Clearly, capital punishment does not deter such people because decency or morality gets there first. Barbaric people are so much like animals that they are incapable of stopping themselves from doing the wicked things they want to do. Such people cannot be deterred because they lack the combination of prudence and self-control which deterrence presupposes. Instead, they must be stopped with the use of force. Rational people are those who want to do illegal things but are self-interested enough that they can perform calculations about risk and reward and decide to avoid committing a crime when its legal penalty outweighs its potential benefits. Thus, deterrence is only an issue with respect to rational people.
The problem is that murderers are not rational in this way.