Does Prison/Capital Punishment Work?

CJ West and I both explore social issues in our novels, but often from different ends of the political spectrum. CJ is launching The End of Marking Time, a novel that follows Michael O’Connor as he pleads to a futuristic jury to spare his life. The book is a fascinating look at how the penal system might operate in the future. So we thought it would be fun (crazy) to hold a forum on capital punishment and our penal system. A homicide detective joins us anonymously and gives his perspective. 

Is our current penal system working? What should we do to make it better?
CJ: No. Recidivism is too high. Sending felons to prison protects us from them in the short term, but does little to combat the issues that brought them there in the first place. Our first failure in the system is the kid gloves approach we take to minor offenses. In many cases police officers identify offenders at a young age, but aren’t armed with the tools to help. Later, when these offenders reach prison, the system provides neither punishment severe enough to force them to change nor the help to enc9780976778806-template.inddourage them to embrace that change on their own.

The system itself has been perverted to such an extreme in Massachusetts that prisoners attack corrections officers, cause severe physical harm, then sue the state and win damages in cases where the corrections officers defend themselves. I have heard enough of these stories in my research to be angry that we aren’t working harder to fix this problem.

The End of Marking Time depicts a two-tiered approach. The system is designed to lavish support on offenders in order to help them make a change. If it is determined they are unwilling or unable to make a change, they are executed.

LJ: What’s wrong with our system is that it’s too big. We incarcerate more people per capita than any other country and we build giant prisons to hold them. Studies have shown that the larger an institution is, the less effective it is. We throw potheads in with killers as though they deserved the same treatment. This makes no sense.

First, everyone who is in prison for the simple crime of possession of a drug should be pardoned and released and our possession laws should be abolished. Wanting to get high is not a felony. The massive amount of money saved by police departments, courts, and jails/prisons should be used to operate government-sponsored drug rehabilitation centers. People will argue that it’s not government’s job, but right now our government at every level spends massive resources to clean up after and house addicts, so why not spend it on prevention instead?

We should also build smaller prisons and separate violent offenders from nonviolent offenders. Offer more education, vocational training, and work release programs for nonviolent inmates who are near the end of their sentence or have short sentences. Offer rehabilitation for inmates with addiction issues. I know it sounds expensive, but with the reduced prison population, it should at least break even with what we spend now.

JL: (Johnny Law) I think you both make valid points. I will be the first to admit that the system as it currently functions lacks the individualized treatment that may make individual successes out of some of the current failures. The current penal system provides a literal breeding ground for hardened criminals to tune and hone their craft while they are inside. From what I have witnessed, the failure rate will continue unless something drastic is done to stop the rate of recidivism. The End of Marking Time approach sounds like the type of radical change that could work. I think there would be a significant initial wave of executions until the inmate population realized the rules had truly changed.

Is capital punishment an effective deterrent?
LJ: The way the system works now, capital punishment is not only not a deterrent but an expensive waste of public funds. We need to either fix the capital punishment system so that it’s effective (e.g., limit appeals) or get rid of it altogether.

cjwestCJ: I believe respect for the law and the consequences of breaking the law are an effective deterrent in many cases. Locked doors keep honest people honest, as they say. Our knowledge of the law and the punishments associated with various transgressions do deter people in some cases, but by and large I don’t believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent. The reason is that the death penalty is applied to only the most egregious crimes. Individuals likely to face the death penalty are often in situations where their lives are at imminent risk. The prospect of being executed after 10 years of appeals must seem distant to a gang member who fears being shot in a drive-by every single night he goes out to the corner.

JL: No offense, but that gang member doesn’t fear being shot. I think the rules of the gang-banger are clear; the consequences immediate, and severe. We all seem to agree that capital punishment as it is currently imposed, does little or nothing to deter crime for criminals. They all know they are more likely to die of old age on death row than to be executed. Capital punishment consequences are conceived by rational thinking, consequence fearing people. The average inmate on death row in the American penal system is not cut from the same cloth.

Should our government have the right to take someone’s life?
CJ: Most of us rely on the government for protection, but for the most part that protection is a fallacy. Our police react to crime. Any crime writer who has done some research understands this. Truth is, I could kill any resident in my town tomorrow and this cannot be prevented by the police except by my own incompetence, or sheer luck on the part of the victim or a passerby.

So if they can’t prevent crime, what can the government do? The government must protect us from those who are willing to attack their neighbor. The most unfortunate part of our criminal justice system today is that the police know who these dangerous people are. They are often identified at a young age when the police begin reaching out to “at risk” youth who sell drugs, steal from convenience stores, or attack classmates. The problem with our current system is that rehabilitation efforts fall woefully short and many of these youth offenders graduate to progressively serious crimes.

I read in the paper today (May 10) about a young honor-roll student in Roxbury who was shot to death on a basketball court in broad daylight last Saturday. The police may never catch the person responsible, but you can bet they have already identified him as someone “at risk.”

Executing felons that we are unable to reform is a loss, but the far greater tragedy is releasing sexual predators and murderers who reoffend. Government not only has a right to take the lives of those who cannot be rehabilitated, but it has the obligation to protect its citizens from these offenders once they have finally been caught.

LJ: I’m going to take that one step further and say that capital punishment is a collective form of self-defense. We not only need to protect citizens on the outside, we also need to protect inmate citizens from the most violent offenders. Inmates (already sentenced to life) who repeatedly assault other inmates or guards should be executed in a timely fashion. I know that sounds harsh, but we have to protect those who still have a chance at rehabilitation and productivity. We have to treat nonviolent inmates as if they matter, so they will value themselves and, in turn, society when they re-enter.

JL: I think a responsible government should have the right to take the life of someone the judicial system has proven to be guilty of their capital crime. I feel the only offenders who have demonstrated the ability to change their behavior through “treatment” or “programs” are juvenile offenders. I think we should direct our resources and energy to these offenders in hopes of saving them from themselves before they reach adulthood and graduate to more serious behavior. Timely government executions of adult capital offenders would be a deterrent for juvenile offenders.

What’s wrong with life without parole?
CJ:
During my interviews I learned that felons sentenced to life without the possibility of parole typically choose one of two directions. Some choose to serve out their sentences without causing trouble. There is an argument to be made that it is humane (though immensely costly) to allow them to live their natural life behind bars. The idea that we provide food and free medical care to felons while we are waiting for them to die seems absurd while others on the outside don’t have these basic needs met. The other path some lifers take is to make it their mission to disrupt prison life at every possible turn. We have created an environment where life is dangerous for the corrections officers. It seems to me that we have gone too far to protect the guilty at the risk of the population at large.

Be sure to check out CJ’s launch party for The End of Marking Time June 10th at facebook.com/cjwestfans.

What do you think of our current penal system and capital punishment?

9 Comments
  1. Thanks for hosting me, LJ. I really enjoyed the added law enforcement perspective. I was a little surprised (s)he agreed that the approach in The End of Marking Time could actually work.

    Great real world discussion!

    CJ

  2. Nothing like a little controversy to get the blood pumping on a Monday morning!

    I favor capital punishment if it is an effective deterrent, which it currently is not. In my admittedly under-informed opinion, this seems to have a lot to do with our lengthy appeals process. I like the way the Iraqis handled Saddam Hussein. He was sentenced and executed within two months. Snappy.

    If we managed things like that in the U.S., I have to believe capital punishment would finally become a deterrent. An example would be set that there are consequences, and for once, that would mean something.

    Great post, everyone. I liked reading your multiple perspectives.

  3. I could rant and rave about this topic for a week and never get it out of my system. There are many things wrong with the way criminals are handled in this country. LJ is right, the sheer number of people behind bars in the U.S. is staggering. Unfortunately, prison is a business. A big business. And there’s a lot of money made by keeping people behind those walls. The federal prison system alone employees approximately 37,000 people who are charged with standing guard over and providing services to just a little over 200,000 inmates. But that’s not where the real money is made. Many businesses cater to the prison industry, such as the folks who make and sell inmate clothing, telephone systems, special plumbing fixtures, toothbrushes, ink pens, and razors, x-ray machines, commissary items, and, well…the list is almost endless. There are even trade shows for prison food.

    A few years ago I was traveling to writers conference via airplane and sat next to a woman who was a representative for a large company that sells those tiny packages of condiments to prisons throughout the country. Their only product. She was quite excited about her trip since she was headed to a huge convention in a resort city. There, she was scheduled to connect with friends and peers (sellers of processed meats, phone services, and razor wire to name a few) to demonstrate their wares. But it wasn’t the hawking of merchandise that had her in a tizzy; it was the prospect of partying for several days, on the government’s dime, that had her salivating. At least that’s what she told me. For most of the flight I viewed photographs of ketchup and mustard packs, tuna in foil pouches, and images of the previous year’s event where what looked like drunk vendors and corrections officials partied like there was no tomorrow.

    Okay, back on topic. The rate of recidivism is sickening and it will probably get worse before it gets better. Warehousing criminals simply doesn’t work, and jail is not the answer for all bad guys. Most crimes are committed, or are deemed as crimes, due to the involvement of illegal drugs and substance abuse. Actually, one of the chapters in my book on police procedure is titled Drugs, Not Money, Are The Root Of All Evil. I firmly believe that to be true. Real treatment for substance abuse (not just ticking off hours so someone can get paid), both prior to jail, during, and after incarceration, would go a long way toward reducing the number of times a prison’s revolving door turns.

    Lastly, there’s no such thing as a felon paying his debt to society. Sure, offenders spend many long years staring at the concrete and steel. But the reality is that many convicted felons feel they have no second chance to redeem themselves—to prove to society that they’ve changed. Once released they can’t find a decent job, if they can land a job at all. Not many, if any, people are willing to hire someone who’s served time in prison, even if the time severed was for a minor, non-violent crime, such as drug possession. Convicted felons are not able to vote. They can’t own a firearm even if their crime didn’t involve violence, or the use of a weapon. The only way to have their rights restored, in the case of federal prisoners, is through a presidential pardon. And that process can be quite expensive due to the extremely high fees charged by the specialized attorneys who handle that sort of thing. Therefore, many ex-prisoners feel they have no goal to work toward. Their lives become stagnant and without purpose, so they often return to what they know…drugs. And that’s when they begin to shove against that revolving door.

    I believe that having a goal for ex-prisoners to work toward, such as having their rights restored (and record wiped clean in some cases) after ten years with absolutely no blemishes on their record, would be a step in the right direction.

    Of course, another way to keep people out of jail is to make everyone a wealthy oil tycoon, or a celebrity.

  4. I love the idea of convicts working toward having their records wiped clean so they can get a fresh start. But we also need to encourage businesses to hire them in the mean time. I think there is a tax break now, but maybe it’s not enough.

  5. Lee, I think your last point is your most important. We don’t have to make anyone a wealthy oil tycoon, but we do need to do a better job keeping people out of prison. That is what The End of Marking Time is really about.

    I have spoken to school teachers and police officers who can identify these troubled kids at an early age. The problem is that we don’t combat the issues that lead to criminal behavior. We let kids from troubled homes plod through school until they drop out and head for the criminal justice system. We need to do more to keep these kids on track. It is so much better for everyone.

    I also agree with your ideas about felons rejoining society. We need to help them avoid the revolving door, but doing that requires a major committment.

    CJ

  6. I’m really curious that nobody has mentioned that the prison system is the last-chance mental health system in the US. We are not allowed to institutionalize people against their will (unless they are dangerous and that is STILL very hard–even suicidal people–3 days. That’s ALL) and we don’t provide insurance for it–so a huge (possibly majority) of people in the prison system are mentally ill.

    I would suggest MUCH of this ‘INDUSTRY’ that is prison would be money and effort better spent on improving opportunity in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods (jobs, training, education), and in providing the mental health help people need.

    I’ve got major issues with the Death Penalty. I will start off by saying it is just plain wrong. But that aside: As it stands, it is CHEAPER to imprison for life than execute (because of the appeals layers), and until it is executed fairly and uniformly (rather than in the racist way it currently is) I think we have no business leaving it on the table.

    I LIKE LJ’s stand about illegal substances, and I would be ALL FOR segregating violent from non-violent offenders. I think that adds an incentive for somebody who feels they ‘need’ to commit crimes, to keep them from adding violence to the mix. I’d also like to REMOVE special treatment for white collar criminals–theft is theft is theft… the higher the value, the harsher the penalty.

  7. These are three such informed and informative voices that I don’t know how much I can add. I would like to say that I feel we’ve gone awry in this country in protecting the criminal over the innocent in many ways, health care in jail being one perfect example. I think we have trouble saying bad is bad, or admitting that evil exists and must be stamped out. We prefer to think in soft terms and this is allowing those who would take advantage for their own gain to do so.

  8. I’ll put in my two-cents-worth here, and hopefully not offend anyone simply by having a different perspective.

    Here’s my take: to ask whether the death penalty is a DETERRENT is, for me, the wrong question to begin with.

    The way I see it, the death penalty is a punishment for a crime already committed, not necessarily a deterrent to crimes not yet committed. The only crimes a death penalty can most assuredly prevent is any future crimes by the executed individual.

    I’m not convinced that punishments in general ought to be looked at as deterrents. After all, there have been harsh penalties for the worst crimes throughout human history… and yet people still commit murders, rapes, and other heinous acts.

    Since no punishment can stop such behavior, the only logical reason for the existence of a death penalty is to punish the behavior, and prevent THAT person from hurting anyone else.

    That said, the current system of endless appeals and long-delayed punishments doesn’t feel like “justice” to me, if you look at it especially from the point of view of a victim.

    I think the death penalty should be RARE. It ought only be applied in the most heinous of crimes.

    But when it IS applied, it ought to be swift… no more than five years after initial conviction, no frivolous appeals, etc.

    I also happen to believe that the only SAFE way to ensure against a false conviction on a death penalty case is to use DNA evidence as a qualifier… in other words, no death penalty unless the DNA evidence supports the guilty verdict.

    But again, I’m not being bloodthirsty here… the death penalty should be rare and reserved for only the most heinous folks… serial killers, serial rapists, serial child sexual abusers, etc…

  9. Haha,I adore Michael Jackson! He was the most talented to ever sing! We will never have someone like him! Rest in Peace to the GREATEST!

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