Trouble in Execution

Governor Jon Corzine and the state legislature approved legislation deciding that life is a good enough penalty for rapists and murderers, but death is a touch too harsh. Time noted, "No criminal has been executed in New Jersey since 1963, so the fact that Gov. Jon Corzine has just signed a bill abolishing the state’s death penalty might seem symbolic. But in a country where capital punishment exists mainly as a symbol, that’s precisely the point."

Sure, it’s a good PR move, at least among rapists and murderers, but Corzine and his crew have a problem. If capital punishment is so immoral, it must be because life is sacred, including any monster you might find in your closet. But New Jersey hasn’t even used its death penalty. And it makes no sense to suggest that all this hubbub is over the possibility that a future innocent life could be inadvertently sacrificed.

Read between these lines: "The best thing we can do for the residents of New Jersey is to enact a measure that will speak to the truth of what the real sentence is and help victim’s families put this painful chapter in their life behind them more quickly."

How could allowing a murderer to live help the victim’s family move on? Easy. They don’t have to go to court for appeals.

A letter from families of victims supporting the abolition states that "to be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure. Life without parole, which begins immediately, is both of these; the death penalty is neither. Capital punishment drags victims’ loved ones through an agonizing and lengthy process, holding out the promise of one punishment in the beginning and often resulting in a life sentence in the end anyway." This way the outcome is assured, and the family doesn’t fester "in limbo."

That means victims’ families are just ticked that bad people can’t die soon enough. So much for the value of human life.

Amnesty International told the Associated Press: "A thorough examination of the state’s death penalty system has revealed it for what it truly is: a colossal public policy failure that wastes taxpayer dollars and diverts valuable resources from proven crime prevention measures." That sounded similar to what a group of law enforcement professionals said: "New Jersey citizens have borne the brunt of the costs of those death penalty trials and reversals, diverting precious resources that could have made our jobs easier and kept the public safe."

Such statements actually contradict the report from the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission whose sole purpose was to provide reasons to abolish the capital punishment anyway: "The costs of the death penalty are greater than the costs of life in prison without parole, but it is not possible to measure these costs with any degree of precision." But there are plenty of studies that find that the costs of the are pretty low, considering its deterrent effect. Besides, how much money is saved when a criminal confesses to a crime rather than go through a costly trial that could result in a death sentence?

In fact, Corzine, along with legislators and anti-capital punishment activists, argued that too much money is wasted in appeals by death row inmates. That money could be diverted from the courts to government agencies intended to help rehabilitate other criminals. As it happens, in October the governor released his Crime Prevention Strategy which looks fairly expensive and focuses primarily on gang violence.

The measures, however, don’t do much to some of the serial rapists and murderers that remain a real problem. While reducing recidivism is a worthy goal, there are people whose behavior can’t be attributed to having the wrong job skills or being poorly reintegrated into society. Some people do bad things because they are bad. One could say that diverting any funding in this way is getting away with murder.

To a libertarian, the idea the state killing one of its citizens should be creepy. But the idea of equating a regular citizen with the other that would brutally murder him is creepier. Critics err on the side of the state judging an innocent incorrectly.Supporters err on the side of the state judging the guilty correctly.

The problem is uncertainty. Could the state of New Jersey ever determine without question that a person is guilty? No. Could the state of New Jersey ever reasonably determine that a person is guilty? It does all the time. What if it’s wrong? The convicted goes through an appeal process. Is it flawed? Sure, not only does it suffer from human fallibility, it also suffers from government fallibility. And in some cases, it suffers from the fallibility of New Jersey’s government, which is especially daunting.

All the same, that state has been deemed competent enough to jail people and even sentence them to death. Since 1983, however, despite sentencing 140 convicted felons to death, New Jersey’s government hasn’t executed a single person. That means that up until last week, if you shot up a mall or raped and killed a child, the state’s worst punishment was to make you believe you could die by their hand. At that time it was an empty threat of justice. Governor Corzine has decided it’s better to just be empty.