Iowa Matters blogs about a Des Moines Register column calling for a vote on whether to reinstate the death penalty for child kidnapper/murderers. It turns out that our state Senate is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, so as long as the Democrats don't want to vote, there won't be one.
In connection with this non-vote, the local TV newscasts, which I rarely watch, have been polling people. I saw one anti-death penalty person who said something incoherent about how the death penalty is just doing what the criminal did, so why not just lock them up for life?
There's some kind of non-sequitur where the comma resides . . . .
I mean, there are good arguments against the death penalty, but this just isn't one of them. To take the easiest example, suppose that we convict someone of taking a victim out of her home against her will and locking her up in his apartment. We would call that kidnapping and false imprisonment, and both are crimes. How would we punish this defendant? We would move him against his will to a prison and keep him locked up there for the duration of his sentence. We would be doing exactly what he did to his victim. Surely, there aren't many who think we can't punish the defendant in this way, are there?
The point is that the state can do things that individuals are forbidden from doing. Punishing criminals is one, collecting taxes is another. (If an individual were to do to you what the IRS does, we would call it extortion.)
That's not to say there aren't good arguments against the death penalty. In general, I'm persuaded that the irrevocability of execution combined with the possibility of error means, at the very least, the death penalty should be restricted to exceptionally clear cases (if such exist); if not an outright ban. It's true that even with imprisonment, there's something lost (time) that can't be given back, but at least we can release the person.
I'm also persuaded that the cost of seeking the death penalty, which is much greater than the cost of incarcerating someone for life, is in almost all, if not all, cases not worth the retributive satisfaction that we might feel. I'd say that the money is better spent on anything from tax refunds to shoring up elementary schools to aid to low income workers, etc.
But if we're going to have this debate, let's forget about the argument that we're just doing what the criminal himself did.
UPDATE (4/29): Christine Hurt disagrees with me and thinks that the argument I criticize can be made coherently on the ground that murder is different from all other crimes because it is irrevocable, and as a result, the punishment too:
The argument does not center around murder being merely a crime, so the government should not commit a second, identical crime by imposing the death penalty. . . . Instead, the crux of the argument focuses on the profundity of ending human life as a rationale for treating murderers more harshly as also being a rationale for abolishing the death penalty.
I'm somewhat persuaded by Prof. Hurt's argument, but not entirely. In part, this is a more refined variation on the irrevocability of the death penalty argument, which I noted above as being a plausible abolitionist argument. It is also a variation of an argument on the symbolism of the punishment as reflecting society's values.
But I'm not entirely persuaded because, if execution is not a punishment option, then the maximum sentence that can be imposed is life imprisonment, and that punishment is not reserved solely for murderers. Under Iowa law, the list of "class A felonies," which carry life sentences, ICA s 902.1, includes (in addition to murder) sexual abuse causing serious injury, ICA s 709.2, kidnapping in the first degree, ICA s 710.2, and second convictions for delivering meth to minors, ICA s 124.401D. These are all serious crimes, and perhaps they merit life sentences, or perhaps they should merit lesser sentences so as to reserve life sentences for murderers. But Iowa, which again has no death penalty, does not treat murderers more harshly than all other criminals.