I had a friend, who has come to my live performances for many, many years, react to my “Music For Life” tour, and he
went so far as to write this terrific piece to me. I asked him if I could share it with you on my blog, and he said, “Yes…”
but only after much serious contemplation and the wish to remain anonymous.
I want to share it with you because this is EXACTLY why people in the U.S. (and around the world) MUST engage in
dialogue, whether about the death penalty, abortion, war, domestic violence, God….you name it. We human beings
must start utilizing the mystical and awesome gifts of our brains.
So, I’d like to thank Marc for this gift of his mind. I hope it will lead to further discussion and that it helps you
create dialogue with your friends and family…and, perhaps, help you to recognize what your feelings are on the death penalty,
My Question to Myself:
What is the Purpose of Punishment?
I asked myself: What is the purpose of punishment for
a crime? I came up with five reasons for punishment,
and I will focus on imprisonment first.
REASON NUMBER ONE
The first reason for imprisonment is that it allegedly
serves as a deterrent. When a person knows if they
break a law, the result will be jail or prison, then, hopefully, this person will not commit the crime in the first place. This concept works, at least for a large percentage of the population (I have no official statistics – I’m just going by what I feel is correct). But to some, it is no deterrence at all – which leads us to reason number two.
REASON NUMBER TWO
The second reason for imprisonment is as a corrective
measure to prevent the person from committing the
crime again. After spending time in jail or prison, a
person will very likely decide that they really don’t
want to be incarcerated again and will make sure that
they don’t commit the first or any other crimes.
Now, I could get totally sidetracked on the
subject of our horrible prison system and how it is
not at all designed with this purpose in mind and how
it often creates more hardened criminals than
rehabilitates them. But that is a different topic.
So, assuming prison serve this function, then this is
the second purpose of imprisonment. It will correct
some but not all of the individuals that got past the
first gate. For those for whom this second purpose
fails, we are led to reason number three.
REASON NUMBER THREE
The third reason for imprisonment is to remove
dangerous individuals from our society – individuals
who will not and cannot reform. As I mentioned above,
I don’t think we really try to reform inmates in the
first place and I think we could make lots of progress
if we truly tried – but that’s the other topic again.
Assuming that we have a decent court and prison
system, I believe that these first three reasons for
imprisonment are valid and just reasons.
REASON NUMBER FOUR
The fourth reason for imprisonment is to obtain Justice. What does justice mean in this case? The philosophical concept of justice has been debated through the ages and has taken on many forms and
definitions. But what I think it boils down to in this situation is two-fold:
1) an attempt to recover the losses experienced by the
victim due to the crime and
2) the punishment of the perpetrator of the crime.
In an ideal world, if someone bumps into you causing you to fall and break your arm, the fair and just action would be for them to apologize, help you seek medical attention, pay for that medical attention, and then ask you if there was anything else they could do to help recover any other losses as a result of this incident. This would be considered a just and fair response.
In the real world, they might just run away or try to avoid their responsibility. Therefore, society has evolved various law enforcement and judicial organizations to ensure that “justice is done”, or delivered, in these cases. (It is interesting to
note that after a criminal trial with sentencing, there is often a civil trial necessary in order for the victim to obtain an equitable compensation for the losses of the transgression. If the criminal has
no money (the usual form of compensation in our society), then the victim is out of luck. Furthermore, recovery is rarely perfect.)
In this hypothetical case of the broken arm, what if you permanently lose some range-of-motion in the affected arm? A large financial settlement might sound desirable but it will never replace the loss of your ability.
When it comes to the loss of life for the victim, there is no equitable compensation for that person. No amount of money can replace a life, no punishment or length of incareration can bring back the dead: in short, nothing can be delivered to friends, family, or society to alleviate or compensate this permanent loss. So justice is often reduced to the concept of punishment and punishment is where I began with my question.
REASON NUMBER FIVE
Which brings us to reason number five – the most
controvirsial reason and the one which I have had the
most difficult time through the years convincing
others to understand. The fifth reason our society
uses imprisonment (and other forms of punishment)
boils down to this: revenge or vengeance.
Revenge and vengeance are purely emotional reasons for
punishment and, in my mind, the most ineffective,
useless, and wrongly exercised reasons for punishment.
If we are totally honest with ourselves and really
explore our feelings, hopefully we will
realize that the fifth reason feels like it will
justify our own emotional and self-serving purposes. The problem is that revenge does nothing to positively affect the law-and-order aspect of society (except in how it may apply to the first two reasons). It also is not very effective psychologically or spiritually at helping us (the victims) deal with the loss and pain that we, as individuals or as society, may feel as a result of the crime.
Because of my idealistic desire for a perfect and just
world, I have spent a lot of time imagining how I
would react if some criminal came into my life and,
let’s say, killed a loved one for a few bucks in a
wallet or pocket book. If I am really honest with
myself, I would not only be dealing with the loss of
the loved one but I would also be dealing with the
incredible amount of anger that I would feel for this
criminal due to the pain that they had caused in my
life! I’ll be honest, I would seriously want revenge!
I wouldn’t care at what cost or what happened to my emotional well being.
And, I admit, that part of me would want this fiend to
be sentenced to death for the crime he or she
committed. I, myself, might even want to “pull the switch”. These would be my feelings, at least,
initially. But I also have a cerebral cortex that would remind me that this solution is not the definitive answer, as hard and difficult a realization that this is. I truly believe this is not the correct answer.
Through the years, books, journals and my own personal experiences have taught me to understand that
the best thing I can do for myself mentally,
emotionally, and spiritually is to come to terms with a crime, and then learn to grow through and let go of my anger and revengeful thoughts toward the person, or people, who committed the crime.
I have talked with many others, and this concept is the one most have the hardest trouble grasping. They can’t imagine letting go of these emotions – and I completely
understand why. It is a very, very difficult thing to do.
Vengeance is an emotion. I don’t believe it is a
legal, constitutional, or even a spiritual platform.
It is a human emotion! And, as an aside, I don’t
believe it shows up in the rest of the animal kingdom.
We humans are, supposedly, the ones who can utilize
thinking minds, We have the capacity to see, or
know, the bigger picture, to recognize right from
I have a friend who strongly believes in the
death penalty. He says he is a Libertarian and he is
not the religious/righteous type. I tried to get him
to explain to me his justification for capital
punishment. It goes something like this:
“It is important in a society for criminals to be held
accountable for their crimes – and for heinous
crimes, the death penalty is just, right, and
necessary. If a person willfully and purposefully takes the life of another, do they really deserve to have life themselves?”
This is a good question and one that I struggle with. But I could turn the question around. In my mind, anyone who takes another life has, at least for a moment (and sometimes with good reason, i.e.
self-defense), a break with reality – a temporary insanity. The cold-blooded murderer is more seriously insane. The seriously insane often suffer from a mental illness related to either the environment in
which they were raised (abused), a biochemical imbalance, or perhaps a brain injury or disease. So my reversed question is this: Don’t these victims (who become criminals) deserve at least our understanding of
their plight and perhaps a chance at recovery through therapy and medications (and who knows what else we may discover in the coming years)?
I still think my friend’s response boils down to an
emotional reaction to crimes and an ineffective and
misplaced attempt at dealing with them.
Look at it this way. As in the previous example, assume you have been pushed down and as a result your arm is now broken. If the perpetrator flees
the scene you would become very angry at them, you would want them punished, and you might curse them for the rest of your life.
If, however, they stay and help you, you might be somewhat angry with them but you probably wouldn’t want them severely punished and you might even come to respect them and honor them for being personally responsible in their committed response.
These are two entirely different emotional responses to the same scenario. Now I know a broken arm is entirely different than the loss of a life. But what I am trying to point out is how much our emotions factor
into our sense of justice.
The bottom line is this: Our American constitution established a free democratic society, one that is life affirming, where there is no place for vengeance in the legal system (just as justice is supposed to be blind).
This idea is especially true when considering capital
punishment. I think if we, as a society, can
acknowledge and then remove this emotion from the
discussion on capital punishment, capital
punishment no longer makes sense. Especially in light
of the fact that revenge just doesn’t correct or help
anything, a fact that is slowly but surely coming to
light in the scientific/psychological arena – but one
that spiritual masters throughout time have been
trying to teach us all along.
And I’m not saying that we need to ignore all of our feelings; we do need to listen to the inherent ones. Emotions based on fear and hate are toxic and can lead us, as a society, in the wrong direction. Feelings and
emotions that include love and compassion make a much better compass.
By the way, one of the unfortunate side effects of
letting our immediate emotional feelings drive our justice system is that certain communities with power (e.g., elected officials, law enforcement, district attorneys, the media, etc) get so caught up in finding the perpetrator(s) of heinous crimes in an attempt to quell their emotions, they often go after any
innocent, convenient scapegoat.
It has been proven time and again that not only do we
incarcerate innocent people, who sometimes lose 20
years or more of their lifetime in prison, but sometimes, their lives are completely ended, as in the case of capital punishment.
I recognize in myself that there is an emotional part
of me that is for capital punishment. But when I am in a calm place and reflect on the idea from an
intellectual and spiritual point of view, I know that
capital punishment is not valid. It doesn’t even begin to address what our society and its individuals need in
the way of healing after a crime (any crime) has been
committed. And as for the idea of closure, this is a myth. Executing an inmate does not bring closure in the loss of a loved one, especially when that person has been ripped from us in a violent way. The pain for victims’ families may never go away, but in the execution of another human being, the cycle of victimization continues with the family of the death row inmate, too.
I think the way to reach out to people when discussing
this touchy subject is to let them know that you
recognize in them what I feel in myself. Ask them to
try and separate the feelings from facts and then ask
them how to best deal with the feelings. Ask them
questions that get them thinking. I have
found that asking people thought provoking questions
is more effective in leading them in a certain
direction than by trying to tell them what to think.
To end…Here I am telling you what to think . . oh well
just my thoughts!