Monday, June 25, 2007

Counterproductive Punitive Social Interventions 101: Capital Punishment

On Best of the Fray, Schmutzle wrote a post challenging the board to argue against the death penalty for a particularly heinous crime. This post summarizes my position on that thread on the topic of punitive social interventions in general, and capital punishment in specific.

Capital punishment reinforces the elements in this culture that lead to such crimes being committed. We should not be abetting the dehumanization of any person, even those convicted of heinous crimes. It is in precisely these types of cases that our cultural morality is most sorely tested, because our repugnance at the act fuels our dehumanization of the actor. It is not a case of social self-defense, it is a case of social retribution, and that is a selfish and insufficient reason to end someone's life.

Recently, the only study I’m aware of showing a deterrent effect for the death penalty was released (actually, it a study that aggregates the results of other studies). I'm skeptical - prior research has shown that violent crime rates tend to dip, and then go UP following a well-publicized execution. Examination of rates, however, is perhaps not the best snapshot for determining the impact a social intervention exerts on a population.

In social interventions, the goal is to shift a distribution of people along the axis of a target behavior. When those interventions employ shame as a major motivation, or are punitive, the result is not really a change in the mean of the distribution, but the shape of the distribution changes - it becomes bimodal, as people polarize in one direction or the other, based on the degree to which they react against or embrace the shaming message (probably based on either desire to identify/affiliate with the person(s) providing it, or to resist identification with them).

The goal of law enforcement should be to encourage prosocial behavior while discouraging antisocial behavior. The impact of punitive law enforcement, however, is the same as above - a splitting of the distribution, where identification is enhanced for a majority, but alienation is enhanced for a minority. This is why community policing efforts in areas like Watts have proven so beneficial, compared to other approaches - the approach is inherently affiliative, rather than alienating. The goal is engagement, rather than punitive enforcement.

The death penalty is an extreme, as far as punitive interventions are concerned. The impact is the same as it is for every other punitive intervention - it splits the distribution. This results in a minority of people who become more likely to commit crimes, and a majority less likely. Unfortunately, the minority is also prone to commit more heinous crimes - murders, etc., become more likely, not less likely.

I can say the death penalty not social self-defense because there's better reason to believe that capital punishment results in more, rather than less, heinous crime. I can say that retribution is selfish, because the momentary satisfaction experienced flipping the switch is subverted by the serial pedophile/murderer who figures he's got nothing more to lose after killing his last victim, and he's better off doing away with a potential witness and minimizing his risk of getting caught than keeping the child alive. I'd put someone like that in a cell and feed them, water them, and give them walkabouts three times a week because its less expensive, because the social benefits outweigh whatever costs might accumulate, and because I'm neither wise nor just enough to determine what exactly has happened to this person that they were able to commit such heinous acts, and whether this should be a factor in determining disposition.