Archive for Thursday, June 28, 2001

Death penalty a civilized act?

June 28, 2001


— Texas Gov. Rick Perry's veto of a bill to ban capital punishment for the mentally retarded, a measure signed by Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, raises again questions of crime and punishment in America. First we must ask: How bad is the picture at the moment? A report by Public Agenda in New York points out that by 1999 the homicide rate had dropped to its lowest point in 35 years; theft and robbery were down 9 percent and juvenile offenses had declined 37 percent in the previous five years. Even so, the crime rate was still twice that of 1960.

Experts were flabbergasted and cast about among themselves to discover the cause of the falling figures. Was it tougher drug laws and three-strikes-you're-out rules for repeat offenders? Was it the huge 1994 federal crime bill with its millions of dollars to hire new police? Was it the halcyon economy that brought good times even to depleted neighborhoods? Was it demography, blessed by fewer crime-prone young males ages 13 to 30?

The answer is all of the above, but there's reason for worry because two of those items are rapidly changing: The current economy is certainly less bountiful, and teen-agers, growing in number again, are likely to reach 30 million by 2006. Given these circumstances, it might not be the moment to halt construction of prisons as some suggest. It's true that an unprecedented 2 million Americans are now behind bars, which undoubtedly contributed to the lower crime rate. However, a substantial portion of those in state and federal penitentiaries are there for drug possession, a nonviolent crime.

As for three-strikes-you're-out, some want to do away with this and with all mandatory sentences. Of course, the punishment should fit the crime. If that is not now the case with defendants who are not violent, the whole structure should be adjusted. But a return to the lower incarceration, high-crime years of the 1980s is not an option. Should juvenile offenders be tried and imprisoned as adults? No, say some critics. But those who have raped, kidnapped or murdered deserve less consideration than those who have not. Certainly, in all instances, it is sound to separate youthful prisoners from adults, and offer them treatment.

The Texas Youth Commission has had mildly encouraging results from its specialized programs. After the TYC approach was adopted in 1997, re-arrest within one year of release was 49 percent as opposed to 60 percent before, in 1993. As time went on, however, the results grew less favorable. Re-incarceration within three years was 51 percent after TYC and 53 percent before. So rehabilitation is not as automatic as some suppose. The great moral debate, in this report and across the country, is capital punishment. As Public Agenda points out, it goes back in America to 1636, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony listed 13 crimes punishable by death, including idolatry and witchcraft.

The Supreme Court ruled capital punishment unconstitutional in 1972 and constitutional again in 1976 after certain discrepancies in some states were corrected. It prohibited execution of offenders who were 15 or younger at the time of their crime in 1988 and upheld the death penalty for the mentally retarded in 1989. So Gov. Perry is completely in accord with the law of the land in permitting capital punishment for the mentally retarded in Texas. But is this really the way of a civilized society? Wouldn't life in prison with no possible chance of parole align itself more closely with the principles of an enlightened nation?

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