I actually generated a good discussion once in a corrections seminar I was teaching at the U of MD a few years back by making the comment that there were worse penalties than the death penalty. The context was Timothy McVeigh, about to be executed, and my belief, as one of the survivors of his bombing, that I did not want him put to death. I favored having him isolated in a cell for the rest of his life with pictures of every child from the Murrah Building’s day-care center flashing periodically in his cell, along with voices if available. To me, killing McVeigh was giving him what he wanted, a “martyr’s death,” and letting him off way too easy. The good “law and order” folks in the seminar thought I was crazy. Death is what he deserved, was the worst they, as law-abiding citizens, could perceive.
That’s one of the big problems with how we make and enforce sentencing laws. We base them on what we, law-abiders, think are the types of penalties that would stop us or would effect justice for us. And those penalities would and do . . . for normally law-abiding folks. But, by definition, we’re rarely talking about the people actually sentenced, and what deters and punishes them is not always the same thing. As Doug Berman points out in this post at Sentencing Law and Policy, some Italian life-without-parole types are actually supporting reinstatement of the death penalty since they, like Timothy McVeigh undoubtedly did, see death as preferable to watching their lives seep away day by day in a prison cell. If we had a lick of sense in sentencing, much of our work would be with inmates, determining what punishments THEY think would have deterred them, would deter others, are appropriate punishments. I’ve talked to enough of these guys to know that any fears that they would go lightly would be quickly dispelled (as many a child sex offender has discovered when placed with them). They can be very good at blunt and effective analysis. That’s not to say that we would always listen, of course, but there’s always going to be trouble when we do penalties based on people who don’t need them and not on the people who do.