Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The "Capital" in Capital Punishment

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. --Mahatma Gandhi

The current economic crisis has given death penalty opponents a new argument that seems to be gaining attention among legislators in several states: the simple economic reality that putting people to death is an enormously costly process. With every state in the union on starvation rations, spending $3 to $7 million to kill someone who can no longer do harm is enough to give pause.

There are other, less expensive, options for dealing with convicted killers and other nefarious characters. Of course, we could simply let them rot in prison (which advocates of the punishment-and-revenge philosophy of social “justice” might find appealing, if only they’d stop and think about it). But we could also adopt the practice of some of the more practical and efficient world powers that, metaphorically speaking, simply lop off their heads and be done with it. Why waste even more money on appeals?

Here’s a way it could be done. First, we simply gather cheek cells from everyone in America and put together a huge DNA database. Then DNA analysis could be done before a trial, thus preventing unpleasant and embarrassing mistakes when long-incarcerated inmates are later proved innocent. (The already executed, of course, are almost never proved innocent because, once they’re dead, human rights advocates don’t waste time on reviewing their cases.)

Of course, the presence of one’s DNA at the scene of a crime is not prima facie evidence that an accused person committed the crime, but let’s not quibble about details. It’s usually enough to convince a jury, and that’s all that counts.

Now, speaking of the jury, here’s the meat of my argument: since it’s usually a jury who decides that a convicted criminal should die, let’s cut out the middlemen and let the jury kill him (or her). Juries in capital cases are, after all, all proponents of the death penalty—unless they’ve perjured themselves and lied about their position during the voir dire process, when attorneys for both sides question them. So juries (or, in some cases, judges) who condemn convicted persons to death should have no qualms about doing the deed themselves.

Besides, only those who are actually in court during a trial can really understand the implications of putting a human being (albeit a possibly dangerous and despicable human being) to death. The judge and jurors have seen the faces of the accused and the families of victims. They’ve perhaps heard the mother or sister of the accused plead for his (or her) life. Maybe they’ve gained some glimmer of understanding about any possible extenuating circumstances—such as trauma or mental illness—that may have contributed to the crime. Only those present in the room when the sentence is handed down can really know which arguments won the day and which ones were discarded. By virtue of their decision, they’ve earned the right to wield the sword of “justice.”

So here’s my modest proposal. After a capital case has been tried and the conviction handed down, a date will be set in the very near future for the execution. The members of the jury will immediately participate in a lottery (some high-tech, modern equivalent of drawing straws), and the lucky juror who wins will be sequestered until the time of the execution, to allow for any desired spiritual preparations she may deem appropriate before killing someone. Then this true and responsible representative of the people can pull the switch, mix the chemicals, plant the needle—or whatever—and get on with life, secure in the knowledge that she really lives by her values.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Darwin!

On this day 175 years ago, the H.M.S. Beagle was near the tip of Cape Horn. Seeing an 8000-foot snow-covered peak in the distance, the captain named it Mt. Darwin, after the ship’s brilliant young naturalist, who was celebrating his 25th birthday. The journals from this voyage capture a moment in history when a creative young mind was engaged in some of those inexplicable flashes of insight that add immeasurably to the body of human achievement.

As a student in Catholic schools, I was extremely fortunate (as I found out later) to be taught by well-educated and enlightened orders of nuns and priests. My teachers celebrated the greatness of Newton, Galileo, and Darwin, carefully explaining that there are many different ways that truth can be expressed. Devoted to scripture, they also revered science and taught that science and religion are totally compatible. I was out of college before I realized that there were people who seriously believed that the allegory, symbolism, and poetry of the Bible should be taken literally.

Thus, I have always been free to contemplate, with no trace of conflict or guilt, the ability of Charles Darwin to see deeply into the nature of things and share with others his incredible leaps of understanding. That he took the trouble to do so is something that all of humanity should celebrate today.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Benefit of the Doubt

When he was a teenager, I used to tease one of my sons by telling him that I was “waiting for his brain to grow in.” Little did I know that was literally true. Among many things scientists have found out in recent years about the brain is that in some people—especially males—the cerebral cortex doesn’t fully mature until the mid-twenties.

From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes perfect sense. Historically, we humans have depended on young males to venture out from the security of their homes and kill dragons, if necessary, to protect their communities. The cerebral cortex (or, more specifically, the frontal lobes) represents the area where attention, thinking ahead, planning, and predicting consequences occur. Far a warrior, questioning things and thinking too far ahead are not necessarily desirable traits!

Before this part of the brain is fully developed, many young people tend to be easily distracted, impulsive, and irresponsible. All this explains why, for generations, mothers and grandmothers have been consoling jilted and disappointed teenaged girls by telling them “boys mature more slowly than girls.”

Some youngsters are well into their twenties when they gain control of their actions and become aware of the consequences of cause-and-effect. This is one of many realities about human behavior that has not penetrated the collective consciousness of the American justice system. As one tragic result of many years of “tough on crime” attitudes and legislation, children in this country are all too often punished for life for mistakes they made as kids.

Despite juvenile justice laws that are often ignored, kids are too often locked up with adult offenders, jailed for life, or even subjected to the death penalty for crimes committed in their early teens--or even younger. For kids who commit even petty crimes, many are tried as adults and saddled with the broad and damning label of “felon” for the rest of their lives.

I was bemused by a statement in a recent AP article about the incarceration of kids. It’s hard to get information about which states are out of compliance with federal laws protecting kids, the article said, because the agency in charge of oversight (the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) doesn’t want to “embarrass” the noncompliant states. Here’s an example of the kind of protectionism and lack of transparency that has characterized business-as-usual in the nation’s capitol for a long, long time.

Be that as it may, we Americans will soon have an opportunity to rethink the way we deal with children in trouble. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to revisit the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act. When they do, I hope more Americans than usual will take an informed interest in the proceedings and encourage legislators to remember that when it comes to children, as Abraham Lincoln said, “Mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

Friday, February 6, 2009

Political Literacy

A friend who teaches social studies told me a story about his 6-year-old son. The two were playing Monopoly, and Dad was losing badly. Almost all his money was gone. His son said, "Dad, do you need a bailout?"

"Yes," Dad replied. "I think I'm too big to fail."

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The "Pro" in "Pro-Choice"

Yesterday we learned that the proud mother of octuplets, born last Monday in California, is an unmarried mother who receives public assistance and already has six children under the age of eight. From the welfare of each of her 14 children to concerns about a planet plagued with overpopulation, the ethical questions surrounding this event boggle the mind.

But let’s pull one strand of thought out of this fiasco and see where it leads us—the question of abortion.

In discussions about abortion, most Americans tend to think of certain common scenarios: for example, a teenager afraid to tell her parents about a pregnancy or a woman unwilling to interrupt her career to have a baby. Many think of abortion as a selfish act by a woman who was irresponsible in getting pregnant in the first place.

The reality—and the megabirth in California is a prime of example of this—is that questions of whether pregnancy should be brought to term can be much, much more complicated than that.

As a counselor, I have been privy to the agonies of two women who had to choose whether to abort a child. One of these women was dying of cancer and had, at best, a few months to live; the other had just learned that she was HIV positive. The woman with cancer had three choices: she could take drugs that would likely damage her fetus but allow her a few more months with her two young sons; she could abort the fetus and take the drugs; or she could let the cancer run its course without treatment, unsure of what that might do to the unborn child. As to the woman who was HIV positive (due to her partner’s infidelity), doctors could only tell her that her child, if born, would have a 50-50 chance of being born with HIV.

Who among us would choose for either of those women? I think most of us would agree the burden of choice should be theirs and theirs alone.

You see, the question of abortion is not really a question of whether pregnancies should be terminated or not—it’s about who should make the choices. It’s not about whether abortion is right or wrong—it’s never “right” but, at best, the lesser of two evils. Rather, it’s about whether the blunt hatchet of legislation is the best tool for dealing with delicate and very personal moral dilemmas. And it’s also about the fact that legislation—like prohibition—has been tried in this country and failed.

Those of us who are pro-choice are pro-choice, not “pro-abortion.” Most of us support the work of family planning organizations at home and abroad—in part, because they make alternatives available to women before conception (thus helping to reduce the number of abortions).

No one is happier than I am to see a healthy baby born to a healthy mother who is able and willing to care for it. But let’s face it—not every birth is cause for celebration. This is especially true in underdeveloped countries where, without family planning information and services, entire families may be in jeopardy from starvation. It’s true in disease-ravaged areas, where babies born to dying mothers may be doomed to a slow, agonizing death from unintentional neglect.

In affluent nations, advances in technology have made it possible for infants to be born who, without medical intervention, would have been naturally aborted. This includes multiple pregnancies involving unnatural numbers of children (all of whom, if they survive, have much higher-than-normal risk of lifelong illness), as well as babies who are severely deformed and disabled.

I once knew a family with several children, the youngest of whom was hardly recognizable as a human being. This female child, who died after a decade of misery, was grotesquely deformed and entirely unable to communicate. She was constantly being hospitalized for a wide range of problems, causing untold stress and anxiety for her entire family. The financial, psychological, and physical toll on everyone concerned was enormous, and keeping the child alive as long as possible (the only morally right course of action once she had been born) required the resources of an entire community.

The implications of medical intervention to create, preserve, or terminate pregnancies are very broad indeed. It’s time we got over the ridiculous obsession many people have with Roe v. Wade and take a broader, more informed look at the wide range of public policies that affect children and families, both in the U.S. and abroad.