Death penalty and cost/benefit

Interesting column today by Charles Lane about keeping the death penalty as an option for at least the “worst of the worst,” i.e., Anders Breivik in Norway:

In the United States, abolitionist arguments are gaining traction, especially claims about the high cost of lengthy death-penalty litigation and the risk of executing people by mistake. Malloy also cited a “moral component” to his decision.

Such practical and moral concerns are at their most understandable in run-of-the-mill convenience-store murder cases, where the risk of error seems relatively high compared with the benefits of punishing murder with death.

But Breivik’s was no ordinary crime. It presents the special case of a cold-blooded massacre of children by a political terrorist whose guilt is unquestionable and who remains utterly unrepentant; indeed, he told the court that he would kill again if given the opportunity…

The stubborn fact is that death-penalty abolitionism runs counter to one of humanity’s oldest and most persistent moral intuitions: that there should be condign retribution for the most monstrous transgressions.

Agreed with all that.  I have no doubt that Breivik deserves to die for his crime.  And probably some of those more heinous “convenience store” murderers as well.  And my moral intuition feels quite good when really bad people are executed for their crimes.  That said, it really comes down to the cost/benefit that Lane points out.  If you are going to have the death penalty, you are going to be executing innocent people.  That is simply a cost I am unwilling to bear for the benefit of executing the really bad guys.  In theory, we could limit the death penalty to the obviously guilty among the worst of the worst offenders.  But, as much as I think slippery slope arguments are over-used, I suspect that you are very much looking at a slippery slope here and that once you have a death penalty, more and more accused murders would actually be facing it.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Death penalty and cost/benefit

  1. Having dealt with the judicial system and how corrupt it is, side me with the abolititionists and make life in prison truly life. I am not willing for a single innocent guy to die to kill 10 guilty guys

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