Reflecting on Deterrence and Mixed Signals

To be able to take the life of another human being, a murder must be able to disregard the the value of the life of another. The death penalty only perpetuates this disrespect. While we think we are showing potential murderers the penalty they will face, that there is a price to be paid for disrespecting life, in reality we are condoning their belief that the lives of others can be devalued and destroyed if it suits their purposes. We do exactly the same thing when we execute anyone; we are saying killing is okay if it serves our larger purposes.

Cases like Eric Robert’s in South Dakota demonstrate this cycle of disrespect for life, not just of others but of one’s self. Robert, who was executed for the death of a prison guard in a botched prison escape, asked for the death penalty. The death penalty says that killing is justified because some things matter more than the lives of others, and Robert valued the possibility of freedom more than the life of Ronald Johnson. This system of devaluing life also led Robert to value his own life so little that knowing he would likely be executed if his escape failed actually incentivised him to try rather than remain behind bars for his 80 year sentence. As his own lawyer stated, “The availability of the death penalty encouraged rather than discouraged Robert to commit this crime.”

The reality is that worst crimes in our society are motivated by a number of issues that go well beyond the effectiveness of threats. For example, mental illness is a frequent factor in capital cases. People suffering from severe and persistent mental illnesses are often incapable of considering consequences in the manner necessary for the threat of execution to deter them. The millions of dollars wasted on capital cases could be more effectively spent on preventing crimes like these by investing in better mental health care. Instead, our current approach claims to prevent crime by threatening those who often cannot understand the threats.

Someone who respects life will not kill others because they respect life, not because they fear the wrath of the law. If we want to live in a society that values life, we must end the death penalty. Otherwise, we perpetuate an attitude that belittles the value of other human beings. Let us stop sending mixed signals and start thinking about what actually works.

Photo by Michael Wyszomierski,

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