Retribution – God of the Machine
Aug 312002

I oppose capital punishment on the grounds that the worst thing the state, with its monopoly on force, can possibly do is execute an innocent person. This, however, is the only argument against capital punishment with any merit. And of all the usual arguments, the worst is that to punish a murderer with death is “retributive” and “barbaric.”

Criminal justice does not operate on the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” principle. It operates on the “two eyes for an eye, full set of bridgework for a tooth” principle. If I hold up a gas station for $200, the judge doesn’t order me to give the $200 back, apologize to the attendant for sticking a gun in his face, and leave it at that. He puts me away for a few years. Otherwise there would be little disincentive to hold up gas stations.

The punishment, as any parent could tell you, must exceed the crime. Not grossly exceed the crime, of course — one doesn’t execute jaywalkers even though this practice would doubtless eliminate jaywalking — but exceed it nonetheless. This does get dicey with particularly heinous, violent crimes like murder, maiming and rape. Still, one cannot accept the principle of punishment in excess of the crime, as most opponents of capital punishment do, and still grow weak in the knees over executing a murderer. It just isn’t logical.

  One Response to “Retribution”

  1. Proportionality is key in criminal justice responses – sanctions increase with the severity of the crime, but remain in similar proportion in terms of relative severity, crime to sanction. Tracking each other, with the sanction always higher. I think capital punishment is essential as an option, but I think it should be very much the tip of the iceberg, which it isn’t now in my judgment. However, given the improvement in technology, the likelihood of someone getting on death row inappropriately is far less now than in the past (that is to say, when the ones found innocent now were convicted).

    We have a fever for more and more severe punishment when all research in psychology and criminology show that sure and swift is more effective than severity of sentence. We should be spending more money on cops, courts and prosecutors than on building more prisons.

    And retribution is a valid reason for punishment, IMHO.

    It’s a shame that our system of punishment has become such a crazy-quilt of sanctions with no real system of keeping sanctions proportional with crime. The increased severity of drug sentences can have a first-time drug offense of fairly low seriousness serving more time than a manslaughter charge. That doesn’t make sense to me.

    Obviously I need to blog on this.

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