Saturday, October 11, 2008

Is This Really Obama's Death Penalty Policy?

From the WSJ: Barack Obama criticized the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision today striking down the use of the death penalty in cases of child rape.

For someone so fiscally and socially liberal, it strikes me as odd that he would denounce this particular decision. Then again, as we've noted in other posts, honesty does not a winning campaign make. Perhaps Obama is actually pandering to a country that he believes still supports the death penalty. However, this is not the case (in terms of % of Americans that believe the death penalty deters crime). The problem with Obama's view, though, is that it does not simply support the death penalty, it actually expands the scope of the death penalty to cover crimes wherein the criminal takes no life.

He supports his viewpoint with the statement:
“I disagree with the decision. I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes,”

But this is the fundamental problem with allowing an expansion of capital cases, what exactly are "the most egregious of crimes?" If someone rapes a 5 year old, but does not kill them, is that any more egregious than the same criminal raping and killing a 21 year old? The problem with drawing arbitrary distinctions like this (besides their being TOTALLY indistinguishable in constitutional terms) is that it cheapens the punishment for other crimes that should be considered just as heinous. The family of a 21 year old girl who is raped and murdered will want to know why their daughter's life was worth less (in terms of the punishment dolled out) than that of a 14 year old girl's. If you're going to argue that child rapists should be put to death, then you MUST also argue that all rapists should be executed, lest you decide to arbitrarily distinguish between the two cases. Another problem with this line of thinking is that child rapists, more often than not, cannot be deterred by punishment. This is because their crimes are driven by psychological afflictions. Now, I am not arguing that they should not be held personally responsible for their actions. What I am saying, however, is that if one justifies the use of the death penalty by its deterrent effect, then that justification loses most of its bite in cases of child rapists. Just be honest and disclose that you would kill a child rapist out of vengeance.

The WSJ article makes, I think, an excellent point towards the end. The author recalls a "Michael Dukakis moment" in which Dukakis was asked, during a debate, whether he would want someone who raped and murdered his wife to be put to death. He stuck to his philosophical guns and told the truth. His poll numbers dropped substantially the following day. Sadly, this is an issue where we may never hear the truth about a candidate's views. It is too risky a proposition to come out strong either way on the death's like the elephant in the corner of the room. At least ONE site has some evidence that Obama believes in an outright ban of the death penalty.


Not too much to say on this one. I agree that this is a position that Obama is likely trying to hide. Furthermore, personally, though believing that the death penalty is perfectly allowable, I am quite mixed on whether it makes for good policy.

However, one thing to add to this discussion - another major problem with extending the death penalty to crimes that do not include the killing of an individual, is that to the extent that the death penalty is a deterrent, there is now no reason for a child rapist to not go ahead and kill the child also. Any form of penal system should be designed so that there is escalating severity of punishment with the escalating severity of the crime.