Capital Punishment and the Criminal System in the USA

Criminality is not a phenomenon reserved for only a few countries or cultures. It happens everywhere, and all types of criminality are represented. However, although the same crime may happen in two different countries, regardless if their cultures are similar or not, the punishment that offender will receive varies greatly. Some states have different drug laws, allowing substance use on one side of the border, whilst on the other side of the border it could be punishable with execution. On one side of a border, there could be freedom of speech, freedom of belief, or the right to sexuality, whilst on the other this could be punishable with harsh sentences.

This creates, not only a very confusing reality for people travelling between these states. It also creates a very unfair situation for people that experience both realities, or whom only have been exposed to one of them, and is then abruptly introduced to the other reality, by either knowing these differences, or not being aware of them at all. In some countries, crimes such as having another sexuality, or affiliations to another religion can lead to imprisonment or even execution. It is important to discuss these differences and agree on international minimum standards that are kept by all countries, not just signed and forgotten.

Malaysia is one of the countries that practice capital punishment for offences like murder and drug trafficking. In 2013, there were 922 people on death row in Malaysia, showing that the law is active and in frequent use. Saudi Arabia is another country that practice executions, and amongst the crimes that are punishable by death, atheism has been added, since it is considered an act of terrorism. 31 states in the USA have death penalty and according to Amnesty International, the U.S. is number five on the list of most executions on the world. However, the death penalty is only the tip of the iceberg.

When discussing punishment, we need to establish what the fundamental philosophy behind a judicial system is and what its goal should be. The oldest and probably the most common notion, is that the judicial system is meant to protect the public from criminals, since they are seen as a danger to society in one way or another, and that the criminals are to be punished for their crimes. These things are not disputed to any notable degree, and elements such as prison time and criminal records are proofs that this idea is universally accepted. However, what the world cannot seem to agree upon is what the final goal of imprisonment and ‘criminalization’ (meaning officially being branded as a criminal offender) should be.

This is an important aspect, since many convicted criminals will, after serving a certain amount of time in prison, lose all chances of a normal life when they eventually are released, and face alienation in the society. This is, of course, problematic for that individual, but more importantly it is problematic for society, especially if you look at larger countries. Norway, for instance, with a total population of about five million people, has a very low prison population. However, if you look at the amount of imprisoned people in the U.S., which has a population of more than 300 million people, there is a significant difference. Norway, which in 2014 only had a total prison population of about 3,700 inmates (prison population rate of 72), has a much lower recidivism rate of 20%, than the U.S., which, with a prison population of 2.2 million inmates in 2012 (prison population rate of 707), had a recidivism rate of 76.6% in 2005. Although the numbers representing recidivism for the United States are old, they are still recent enough to illustrate the huge difference between these countries. When 76.6% of the released inmates return to prison, it is obvious that this is a costly trend for society, not only because these people have to be re-incarcerated, which costs money, but because the crimes they commit will give even bigger societal costs.

The biggest difference between Norway and USA is the underlying philosophy of what imprisonment is and what the goal of incarceration is. To the Norwegian Department of Corrections, it is their responsibility to rehabilitate the inmates and make sure that they are prepared for a life outside the prison walls. A possible consequence from imprisonment is that the inmates become institutionalized, not being able to function properly when they eventually are released. This comes in addition to the process of making sure that they will not resume their criminal activity once they go back home. In the U.S., on the other hand, there is a much bigger focus on punishment. It seems the philosophy of ‘an eye for an eye’ is the governing factor, and that a prisoner should have the worst experience possible while imprisoned. There is a much smaller focus on rehabilitation, and the prisons are not only dangerous for the inmates in terms of being subject to violence, such as physical attacks with sharp items and rape, but also because more people develop a drug problem while imprisoned, than when they were first incarcerated. This makes reintroduction to society a much harder task, especially when there is little or no focus on preparing the inmate for the eventual release.

Already we see a huge difference, but there is another important issue that has barely been mention: the death penalty. Norway has made the death penalty illegal, but the U.S. still uses the law frequently. In 2015, the United States executed 28 people through a lethal injection. Why is this relevant, though? Should it not be at each state’s discretion whether they should allow the death penalty or not? I believe it is a matter of principles, and many of these principles are written in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article I states that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,’ and article III states that ‘everyone has the right to life.’ According to article III then, executions are effectively violating the human rights, since everyone has the right to life. The importance of this point cannot be emphasized sufficiently. There are several reasons why a convicted criminal is removed of his or her liberty, and it can be justified by the same declaration. However, taking a person’s life is something very different from mere imprisonment, though the latter is a severe and traumatic experience for anyone. While imprisoned, the inmate can in most cases still expect to be released, however, if a convicted criminal is sentenced to death, then that person is not offered a second chance, or an opportunity for rehabilitation. Instead, the government strips the convict of his single, most costly, and irreplaceable property – his life. An inmate can always get his home back, find a job if they are lucky, and even return to a more or less normal life. If penalized with death, then these are no longer potential futures in the distant, but impossibilities, and the inmate has no future at all.

Another dangerous aspect about the death penalty is that the judicial system, especially in the U.S., is very inconsistent between the different states. If you commit a certain crime in one state, it could lead to a certain amount of years in prison, whilst if you commit the same crime in another state, then you could be sentenced to death. It could be argued that this practice violates article I in the Declaration of Human Rights, that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,’ since the law in effect does not treat all human beings equal. The Norwegian judicial system was put on the same test when Anders Behring Breivik killed over 60 people, all under the age of 30 and most of them being between 14 and 21 years old. Many wanted to reintroduce the death penalty for this single court case, and even Americans wrote in the Norwegian national media about how Norway should learn from this and execute Breivik. Fortunately, the judicial system treated Breivik as any other man, and the judges treated his case as any other case. This made me incredibly proud of my own country, and made me so much more aware of my own stance on the matter. Recently, the same man sued the Norwegian Department of Correction for violating his human rights, and he won several points, which I think is great. It proves that any man can try his case in a court and be judged objectively based on the facts presented.

To break the aspects of punishment through the death penalty, I believe it is a matter of how one value a life. Is it really a human right to have a life? If so, how can the judicial system sentence someone to death, when murder is illegal? Does this behavior legitimate murder? To me, the matter is clear. A life is priceless, and so it is untouchable, untaxable, and impossible to remove, without taking someone’s life. By executing someone, you are not only punishing the convict, though. You are also removing any chance of having a life, which again, is a direct violation of article III of the Declaration of Human Rights. If a person is not allowed to take another man’s life, because life is so precious to us, how can a government do it? In addition, in many countries the executions are very brutal and extremely explicit. Some are done by hanging, others by decapitation or even crucifixion. However, what if it is done humanely?

Some people argue that if the execution is done humanely, then it justifies the punishment. The inmate will not suffer while being executed, and the society and families of the victims are guaranteed to never see the offender ever again. In the U.S., the executions are often done with lethal injection, which consists of three parts. The first injection is an anesthetic, which is to make sure that the inmate will not feel pain. The second injection is a paralyzer, which does not really have any advantageous effect. It seems the paralyzer is only there to make sure that the victim does not show signs of consciousness and pain if the anesthetics would not work, meaning that for the purpose of making the lethal injection as painless and ‘humane’ as possible, it is redundant. The final stage is the injection of potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Already here we see proof of a double standard that illustrate how this ‘humane’ approach ignores the humane aspect of it, by using the paralyzer to conceal any pain the inmate might have, if the anesthetics do not work.

Execution through a lethal injection is a rather new practice, and since no doctors, but either prison employees or a lawyer, perform the actual injection, they do not really know what dosage to give a person to be absolutely sure that he will die from the injection. There have also been several problems connected to the drug production, drug acquisitions, and drug substitutions. Clayton Lockett was executed on April 29, 2014, however, things did not go the way they were supposed to. When trying to insert an IV, they could not find any veins, and tried more than a dozen times to get an IV into his body. Once they managed to do this, the needle was not properly inserted, and it partially retracted from the vein. The anesthetics were injected, however, the time for Lockett to go unconscious was surprisingly long. They then injected the paralyzer. By now, the needle was only partially inside the vein, and much of the fluids was injected into his tissue and started seeping out onto his skin. When the potassium chloride was injected, though, and they thought Lockett was both unconscious and paralyzed, he opened his eyes and started moving. His entire body was twisting in an attempt to escape the restraints and his facial expression showed that he was clearly in pain. He managed to speak one word, “man,” but that was it. While the warden tried to figure out what to do, Lockett finally died from a heart attack. After the lethal injection, it took 43 minutes for Lockett to die. Similar episodes have happened later. 3 months after Lockett was executed in Oklahoma, Joseph Wood was executed in Arizona. He gasped for one hour and 40 minutes after the drug was injected, and according to a witness, Wood gasped 640 times before he finally died.

Finally, there is the aspect of guilt. Many cases have turned out to misinterpret evidence, and end up sentencing the wrong person. This is serious enough when that person is imprisoned. However, when that person is executed, there is no way to correct the mistakes. The state has then taken a life of an innocent person, in the belief that he had committed a crime he in fact had not committed. In 2004, Cameron Willingham was executed, charged with setting a fire that killed his three children. It later turned out that the fire was an accident, but that is irrelevant, since it is impossible to make right.

How is this connected to peace, then? Well, since the death penalty is based on the philosophy that if you kill someone, you should also be killed – an eye for an eye. This philosophy, though, is based on hatred. The mother of a victim of an attempted murder admitted that even though she wanted the convict dead, it would not change anything. The crime had still been committed and it would still haunt the family, regardless if the convict lives or dies. This is true, and an execution is not favorable to society, other than that they remove the convict from it. However, this can be achieved through imprisonment, too. Therefore, when a family think they will feel better after the offender has been executed, this is not always the reality, and there is in fact no advantage to the death penalty. The societal costs saved from not rehabilitating the inmate could also be less than the actual value the inmate could provide to society if he was rehabilitated and re-introduced to a community and able to live a normal life.

It is said that an eye for an eye makes blind, and according to Alexandre Dumas, “hatred is blind; rage carries you away; and he who pours out vengeance runs the risk of tasting the bitter draught.” If unfair and unjust punishments, such as the death penalty, are based upon hatred, then they will just generate more hatred. The family that has lost everything will not gain anything, and another family will lose everything. This endless circle of misery and hatred will only lead to polarization and more hatred. Polarization and hatred is what is raging across Europe and other parts of the world today, and are some of the root causes for the huge tensions in European countries. Although these are not directly connected, it is not hard to see how harsh and unjust punishments can contribute to already tense societies.


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