One bit of Thanksgiving dinner conversation I heard arise at the grown-up table involved the function of the penal system (go ahead, take 30 seconds to make your homophonic joke--I'll wait.) Done? Moving on...Anyway, the proposal involved changing the current societal practice of locking criminals away for the rest of their lives. Rather than incur the probable years of expense, the question was asked, why not just kill them and be done with whatever problem child we had already decided to remove from mainstream society?
Wow. I could understand many causes for raising that question for debate, but to argue for death on a solely economic basis seemed rather cold-hearted to me. Writing various types of fiction (my THEOBROMA series contains wars and frictions between societies at different developmental stages and the effects of extreme personalities on the worlds around them), I've pondered this sort of dilemma before. The dilemma being, aren't we as people supposed to be growing beyond things like fighting over food and killing each other? Aren't we supposed to be becoming more enlightened? I don't walk around with a desire to kill people burning inside me and I assume that most emotionally and psychologically stable people don't either. Getting the government (supposedly, the representative barometer of the culture) to stop killing people should be easy, in theory, once enough of society's membership gets involved in the decision-making on that one. That's going to take a lot of very vocal folks. I also think it's going to require having other options to get physical death off the table. Till that happens, we're left in the position of letting some of the worst elements of society make killers of us all in order to protect ourselves from them. The bad guys literally have us hitting ourselves, keeping us from rising to our collective potential by bringing down the average. Yeah, it's self-defense, but it still carries an impact. So...who's winning?
People who are considered healthy and well-adjusted don't want to have anything to do with killing others. Soldiers are given training, conditioned to prepare them for combat, but studies have shown that they still don't seek out opportunities to kill and are left with post-traumatic stress after having to do it. Sure, we got to the top of the food chain by learning to kill everything else, but that's not supposed to include each other. When it does, something's either already gone wrong in the brain or it soon will.
Usually when I consider this death penalty issue, I weight the balance against Ted Bundy. Is it extreme? Well, there were worse serial killers but he covered a lot of bases, so he makes a good choice to me. How do you handle protecting a peaceful, civilized society from Ted Bundy? For those of you unfamiliar with him, Ted Bundy was an American serial killer. As a young, handsome white man, he had little difficulty hunting his chosen target class: pretty college girls. When he was finally arrested, he escaped from jail. When he was arrested again and finally put on trial, there were members of the jury reluctant to find him guilty because he was so intelligent and charming. Found guilty, though, he was sentenced to a maximum security prison from which he escaped and killed more girls. When he was captured again, he was tried and sentenced to death. He was finally executed one morning in Florida.
Now, what better way could we have handled a man who could escape from basic jails and maximum security prison, charm jurors and victims, and who killed remorselessly at every opportunity?
I'm not sure we have a great answer yet. In science fiction, there've been different methods of performing personality executions, alterations that have essentially created a whole new persona out of the existing person. Imagine being able to erase the psychotic's deadly impulses, perhaps even any memory of criminal activity and sending that harmless, reprogrammed person back into society to perform community service work. Without access to magic, telepathy or an inductive mind control of any permanence, we're still left with surgery to affect any lasting changes in the sociopath's mind and would, ironically, face all manner of civil rights protests seeking to protect Bundy. Additionally, what would protect the newly harmless, former killer from being stalked and victimized by people who felt he hadn't been sufficiently punished? The victim in this situation wouldn't even have any memory to explain to him why he was being persecuted.
Storing criminals in suspended animation (once we develop effective systems for storage and reanimation) and rehabilitating them while they sleep may become popular someday as it did in "Demolition Man". It would have the benefits of requiring no food, bedding, exercise yards and terribly little security. That sort of situation would also require a complete redesign in the way prisons...oops, sorry, detention and rehabilitation facilities are constructed. Still, that development is probably nearer to manifesting than the even more famous detention system: The Phantom Zone. Using some ultra-tech and high-level physics, Jor-El found a way to deal with what little crime there was on Krypton for the cost of a little electricity. The mental stability of those banished to the ghostly otherdimensional netherverse of the Phantom Zone was also sacrificed, but those who were sent there were typically considered irredeemably dangerous, anyway. Sending them away was seen to be for the greater good of society. I've never really seen much to indicate that Kryptonian society was as concerned about rehabilitation as ours, anyway. Ultimately, though, eternity in the Phantom Zone seems fitting for individuals like Ted Bundy.
We still have a few places left to try using remote exile, but that's how Australia got started and we don't want to go through that mess again. Ignoring people with a good public shunning might do some good for minor infractions, but I wouldn't expect it to trigger any sort of emotional epiphany in someone as broken as Bundy. Serial killers like to move about inconspicuously so that would just be encouraging them. Either way, exiled or ignored, I think we're still looking at major monitoring and maintenance issues again.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio has some amusing ideas working out in Arizona. Maricopa County painted the jail cells pink, made the inmates wear pink prison garb and put prisoners to work in the animal shelters (saving Maricopa County over $15 million dollars/year on stray animals and possibly stimulating a bit of empathy). I haven't heard of them having any problems with the animals, but the inmates have protested quite a bit about the pink. I'm not a fan of wearing pink myself, but I've yet to find any sympathy for them. They also have prisoners farming and growing Christmas trees (sold very cheaply and at a profit). These are educational and productive activities even though some of the tent farm housing is considered uncomfortable in the Arizona heat. Arpaio maintains that inmates are subjected to nothing worse than our soldiers in the middle east and all are told that if they don't like the conditions (no weights in the yard, charging the inmates for meals, no coffee, no smoking, no porn, only Disney and Weather Channel on cable, chain gangs for men and women doing county and city work projects) that they should make sure not to come back. Again, though, there are big differences between people in county jail for missing child support payments and serial killers. Some people are beyond simple punishment and rehabilitation.
Are there some aberrations that are still beyond our ability to fix? If we can't correct extreme anti-social behaviors and these people remain threats, what can we do? Must we resign ourselves to extreme responses to extreme behaviors or is there a better way?
I'm open and I'd love to find out what you think.