Let’s Expand Capital Punishment

I consider myself a tolerant and spiritually evolved individual. I realize that not all members of society have been dealt the same hand of cards to play in life. I also realize that–regardless of the circumstances of a person’s birth, the environment in which they were raised, or the opportunities they have or have not have–at some point, personal responsibility must weigh in. If it didn’t, we would constantly make excuses for our behavior. We would never grow as individuals. We could not function as a civilized society.

While capital punishment is a hotly debated topic, and has been for a very long time, I think we have to really consider using it more often, and more effectively.  Why? Because the damage that criminals are doing to our society is too great to let their actions go without consequence.

Yes, violent crimes devastate individuals, families, and communities. Murder, rape, and robbery are horrific. The perpetrators of such actions should be arrested, tried fairly, convicted, and imprisoned. While in prison, they should have the opportunity to reflect on their behavior, learn new coping and job skills, and be released back into society when appropriate. Or remain there the rest of their lives.

But I don’t think they should be executed. Why? Well, for one reason, it’s estimated that 5 to 10% of all death row inmates have serious mental disabilities. You can’t responsibly dish out the most severe punishment there is to a person who may not have realized what they were doing when they committed a crime.

Secondly, we hear too many horror stories about half-hearted public defenders and overzealous prosecutors who’ve acted incompetently or unethically, with their actions resulting in the conviction and sentencing of a person to death. We also read, too frequently, about wrongfully convicted individuals–often black and from poor backgrounds–being released from prison after serving time for crimes they did not convict. New evidence comes to light. Witnesses recant testimony. Justice is, finally, served. Fortunately, we are able to set these people free and let them salvage what’s left of their lives. That option is not available if these people are executed.

But I still advocate the expansion of capital punishment. Just not for violent criminals. I advocate it for white collar criminals. Why? The social damage of the illegal behavior of white collar criminals is exponentially greater than that of violent criminals. Think about it: if a man or woman murders another person, the pain is felt by the family, friends, and community of the victim. This pain is very real, and I’m not minimizing it at all. But the actions of white collar criminals are felt by entire cities, states, and nations, often for decades. Suffering is widespread and enduring. The punishment, as they say, should fit the crime.

Are you old enough to remember the the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s? That little fiasco cost the American taxpayers an estimated $124 billion. That’s money that could have gone to schools, bridges, scientific research. But it didn’t. It went to clean up a mess that white collar criminals created, then walked away from. You paid for it, and you’re still paying for it.

Maybe you remember the Enron scandal and its financial fallout. Certainly you remember the financial crisis that we’ve just experienced a few years ago. We bailed big banks out and left millions of middle class homeowners holding the bag in the form of toxic mortgages and bankruptcies. Can you put a price on the pain that behavior caused an entire nation? This irony–this injustice–is not new or news to anybody. Still, no Wall Street banker or corrupt government regulator has been convicted and sent to jail for their part in this crime.

It’s time for that to change, quickly and in a big way, with capital punishment. Capital punishment is fully warranted for white collar crime for several reasons, which I shall now gleefully articulate.

First, the overreaching destruction and pain that it causes society is too great. We have too many challenges as it is. We simply can’t expose everyone to risks that benefit only a few…if they pay off, and endanger the well-being of all citizens if they don’t.

Second, the participants in the crime are not committing the crime because of any dire need: they are not starving; their life is not in danger; it is not a crime of passion. They are acting out of sheer greed and ego. They have had the advantage of education and affluence. They know what they are doing. They should be held to a higher standard of punishment.

Third, the individuals committing these crimes live in a world of risk and reward. That is the fundamental psychological paradigm of their occupations. They evaluate the risk of a particular investment choice and its corresponding potential reward. They act accordingly.  If, by making the choice to commit a crime for financial gain, they realize that they are risking their lives, it is reasonable to think that they would retreat from that choice. The risk would outweigh any possible reward because they would deduce that, all things considered, they might not be alive long enough to enjoy it.

Finally, the evidence of a white collar crime is usually obvious, and usually on paper. Documents don’t lie. Emails don’t have faulty memories. Transactions leave a paper trail. What’s more, the defendants will probably have the best legal team money can buy. So the possibility of wrongfully convicting and executing a white collar criminal is minimal, and probably non-existent. So we can execute them without losing any sleep at night, secure in the comfort that we did the right thing.

But I am not without compassion for these cowardly parasites who don’t have the honor or decency to play by the rules in a game that has already been so generous to them. I do realize that there have been recent reports of some executions involving lethal injections not going exactly according to plan. Prisoners who were executed sometimes suffered for 20 minutes or more. Autopsies showed signs of chemical burns on their skin. Witnesses noted them gasping for air and writhing in pain.

That just wouldn’t do, even for a white collar criminal who, let’s say, decimated millions of people’s life savings, or left families in the street, after the banks foreclosed on their homes. We should be more charitable. We should upgrade the service. We should use the guillotine.

The guillotine is a frighteningly efficient device, used most famously with much enthusiasm and little discretion during the French revolution a couple of hundred years ago. White collar criminals, one could argue, were a large percentage of its clientele. It was a horrific period of history, but today the French have very little white collar crime and deal with it very severely. I doubt this has anything to do with the use of the guillotine, but I wish it did.

Nevertheless, the device, an ingenious combination of a well-constructed, sharp-edged blade and ever-reliable gravity, had its advantages, which, you’ll be happy to note, the passage of time has not diminished.

First, the pain endured by the victim is probably minimal, and certainly brief. One second a person is alive with their head intact. The next, they are not and it is not. Properly constructed and used by professionals, the guillotine offers very little room for operator error. Sending one off to meet their Maker has never been quicker or more compassionate.

Second, it was (and can be) used in public. One execution, comrades, is worth a thousand warnings. Seeing a convicted bankster instantly divested of the need or ability to wear a necktie might temper the ambitions of all those aspiring Gordon Gekko’s gestating in business schools around the country. For what do you profit if you gain the whole world and lose your head?

The shallow truth is, however, that the public humiliation will be the biggest deterrent. History books recount the prolonged wailing and flailing, the involuntary emptying of bowels and bladder, and desperate prayers to a deaf God that regularly preceded the quick death of the unlucky soul who faced the blade. Knowing how Wall Street honchos prize their macho image, this humiliation alone would do more than any SEC regulation or million dollar fine.

We embraced the Statue of Liberty, another great gift from France. We should embrace the use of the guillotine and the French tradition of using it in public. Our laws are made by legislatures, elected by the public and whose proceedings can be viewed by the same public. When people violate these laws, we arrest them in public. We try them by jury in public. We convict them and sentence them in a courtroom, which is open to the public. We should be consistent in our legal and judicial proceedings and be proud to execute them in public. That is, if we think that the death penalty is a right and fair thing to practice.

After seeing the harshest of our laws carried out in the clear light of day, citizens would certainly think twice about doing something illegal. Those same citizens might also reconsider capital punishment.

But until they do, I say let’s convict some white collar criminals and give it a go. Allez!



2 thoughts on “Let’s Expand Capital Punishment

  1. I agree that penalties for white-collar crimes need to be strengthened, but lets stop short of the guillotine :). The perception in the courts is that white collar crime doesn’t physically hurt anyone therefore the punishment should be lighter to fit the crime. However, anyone who saw the anguish on the faces of Bernie Madoff’s victims should know better …

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