NPR aired an interesting story yesterday entitled “The Quiet Revolution in the Death Penalty Debate.” Evidently, there has been a trend over the past several years away from prosecutors seeking the death penalty. No doubt that this is at least partly to do with state-level successes at repealing the death penalty. But there are many other reasons, including changes to the directions given to federal prosecutors and the shortage of the main drug used for lethal injections, sodium thiopental.

I, for one, see this as amazing news. Although my instinct is to be pessimistic about abolition, I’m inclined to believe NPR’s report. According to Amnesty International, 2010 saw about one third as many executions as we saw 15 years ago. Even though not every state has abolished the practice, it would seem that the trend is going out of fashion.

Sometimes it’s hard to explain to people why I oppose the death penalty. I mean, only people who commit the worst crimes are subject to the worst punishment. Well, in an ideal world, that would be true. But the fact is that mistakes are made all the time. The Innocence Project has a good rundown of how prevalent DNA exonerations are.

But even if we only killed people who killed other people first, I think I would still think the death penalty is wrong on philosophical grounds. It’s such an extreme punishment. It literally takes everything you have. Sometimes, when the perp has committed some kind of horrible crime, I waver in this belief. Maybe this person does deserve to die. Maybe those horrible dictators who tortured their people deserve everything they have coming. But I’ve lived long enough to know that pure retribution doesn’t necessarily make anything better. It doesn’t bring back loved ones, and more to the point, it doesn’t even seem to deter people from committing heinous crimes.

So…what’s the point?

It seems like our time and money would be better spent on prevention and rehabilitation than punishment and retribution. There are always going to be criminals, but we need to remember that they are also people. Sentencing someone to death is the ultimate abandonment, and I’ll be glad to see it go.

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