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Cost considerations should not outlaw death penalty

Louisiana increasingly grapples with its ability to offer capital punishment and its policy-makers debate the death penalty’s efficacy, to the point that even some past supporters of it now question it. Yet the data used to argue against it discount the restorative power of the penalty, a salutary feature of it illustrated by a recent, if unfortunate, event in the state.

Over the past couple of years, executions nationwide have slowed to a turtle’s pace as ideological opponents of capital punishment have influenced makers of the drugs used in the lethal chemical injection process not to make these available to states wishing to carrying out sentences. This reduced a rate already at a crawl as over the decades increasingly aggressive appealing of sentences has grown, although that has received a boost from technological innovations, for example which make DNA testing for potential innocence more available. And that has resulted in some reversals, which makes that exercise worthwhile and less likely to happen in the future as more criminal trials access this technology from the start, leading to fewer future mistakes.

But this desirable dragging out of sentence commission produces an unfortunate side effect, now compounded by the undesirable sitzkreig strategy of ideological opponents, of making capital punishment less effective as a deterrent. Research indicates that the death penalty saves lives by deterring murders, but only when it has consistent application. The start-and-stop, uncertain nature that it has taken on in recent years diminishes this effect, and in part highlights opponents’ strategy that if they can make the concept of this punishment take on that nature, that kicks out a prop to the argument favoring its maintenance.

That those with capital sentences end up costing taxpayers more – even as their incarceration might not last as long as those with life sentences the expense of the judicial process attached to these often ends up more expensive than housing for extra years – provides a monetary benefit to the dismissal of capital punishment from statute. This also appears to motivate some conservatives to question the value of executing capital criminals.

However, cost considerations and self-fulfilling reduced efficacy of the punishment disregard another main point in execution’s favor – that while levying a death penalty on someone truly guilty might take their earthly life, it may save their eternal one. That is, those who lead sinful lives that will earn their souls eternal condemnation can have a capital sentence spur them to perform the introspection necessary to make a healthy transformation. Without knowing that death impends, they may lack incentive to focus on doing that work. God’s mercy is infinite, and when one genuinely desires reconciliation and proceeds to live in a way that tries to be free from sin, while seeking absolution in cases of backsliding, God happily delivers.

One such example came from Louisiana’s death row. Convicted murderer Terrence Carter first entered Angola an unrepentant criminal, but through interaction with prison ministries he discovered God’s love for him and put aside his evil ways and intentions. God’s plan is mysterious so we never will know for sure whether giving Carter a date, even if not yet determined exactly, to meet his Maker constituted the essential element for him to accept God’s grace, but certainly he emerged a changed man as he waited for his capital sentence to be carried out. Unfortunately, in a moment of weakness concerning punishment for a jailhouse infraction, last month he committed suicide

As Catholic doctrine makes clear, rarely should the state levy the death penalty, with an eye towards preventing unjust aggression from taking human lives. Yet to eliminate this most extreme punishment completely, because of that deterrent effect gone missing, unjust aggression will take human lives – both the victims of the killer mortally and perhaps the killer’s immortal life with God. That’s an exceedingly wise standard to institute as public policy, and any attempt to prohibit the death penalty will cost lives, here and in the hereafter.

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