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How common is it to believe that life imprisonment is worse than being executed? - Input Junkie
April 11th, 2011
11:06 am

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How common is it to believe that life imprisonment is worse than being executed?
In recent discussion at Less Wrong, I mentioned that it seemed to me that a good many Americans oppose capital punishment because life imprisonment is a worse punishment, but it turned out that I didn't have much evidence that it's a common belief.

I'm interested in information from other countries as well as the US, but please mention where you're referring to.

Do you oppose capital punishment because you think life imprisonment is a more severe punishment?

Have you heard other people make that argument? Much, occasionally, rarely, never?

I originally thought people who made that argument did so because they actually thought capital punishment was wrong, but believed they would get more traction by presenting their opposition as being harder on criminals. Is there any reason to think I was right about anybody?

As for the question of whether life imprisonment is actually worse than capital punishment, aside from the matter of exoneration, I'd say that capital punishment is usually a more severe punishment, but not always.

Mock executions are considered torture. I haven't heard of anyone being tortured (or even harassed) by being falsely offered a chance to commit suicide, so I'm going to assume that it might have happened, but if so, it's rare.

Prisoners are not permitted to commit suicide, but I don't get the impression that most of them want to. I've heard that many have a horror of dying in prison.

ETA: The one person I found by a fast google who'd used the argument is a British judge. Thanks to lethargic_man for telling me that QC meant he's a judge, not a politician.

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From:nancylebov
Date:April 11th, 2011 03:49 pm (UTC)
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It's what I've heard some Americans say in opposition to capital punishment. I'm trying to find out if it's at all a common point of view.

Please don't let the shockingness of the idea override the possibility that it's false.

Googling turned up only one person promoting that point of view, and it was a British politician.
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From:lethargic_man
Date:April 11th, 2011 05:46 pm (UTC)
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Googling turned up only one person promoting that point of view, and it was a British politician.

Who? (Yes, I'm too lazy to google.)

(FWIW, I'm with the risk of miscarriage of justice argument.)
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From:lethargic_man
Date:April 11th, 2011 08:41 pm (UTC)
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I'm appalled that a majority of the British people still are in favour of capital punishment after the high-profile overturning of convictions of people wrongly accused of being behind IRA atrocities—the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six mentioned in the article. However, I'd question whether 51% of a YouGov survey counts as a "clear majority": is a survey sufficiently representative of the wider population for that 1% to be statistically significant?

(Also, FWIW, QC (Queen's Counsel) means he's a senior judge, not a politician.)
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From:richardthinks
Date:April 12th, 2011 01:37 pm (UTC)
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Looking at their methodology it seems perfectly created to generate the response you wanted before you ask the question. Apparently, however, they've predicted Pop Idol winners and other such important things.

Who knows? Who knows what survey data mean, especially when you pay people a few pennies to fill in surveys. Who knows what opinion would be after just one more person was executed. But I sincerely hope this isn't reliable.
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From:anton_p_nym
Date:April 11th, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC)
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I have no data, but anecdotally I find most people oppose the death penalty for two main reasons:

(a) because they feel strongly that killing is wrong, whether done by private citizens or the state,

(b) because they look at the long history of convicts on Death Row (or after execution) being exonerated by later investigations.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I fall into camp (b). It's hard enough to make restitution to someone wrongly convicted without the added complication of his/her being a corpse.)

I've heard/read folks rebut the pro-execution argument that life sentences let criminals "get off too easily" with the argument you advance, but I can't recall anyone citing it as his/her main argument.

-- Steve wouldn't be surprised if some folks held to it, but can't see it as a notable fraction of the population.
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From:dcseain
Date:April 11th, 2011 03:47 pm (UTC)
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For me, both (a) and (b), especially (a), though (b) has a long history here in Virginia.

I do also think that killing them is too easy, though it's a long, long way from my main argument. I think it makes a rather weak and overly philosophical main argument.
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From:nancylebov
Date:April 11th, 2011 03:50 pm (UTC)
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Too easy for the government, or too easy on the convict?
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From:dcseain
Date:April 11th, 2011 03:53 pm (UTC)
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Yes, though mostly the convict.
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From:filkerdave
Date:April 11th, 2011 04:07 pm (UTC)
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(a) and (b) for me both. (There are some crimes that I feel less strongly about (a), to be sure, but the change of (b) is really, really scary to me -- how do you undo a wrongful death?
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From:lilairen
Date:April 11th, 2011 09:02 pm (UTC)
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I'm primarily a (b) and consider it sufficiently strong that (a) as a philosophical debate is entirely irrelevant and thus I don't need to be concerned about it, including formulating my own opinion thereupon. (I've seen people argue financially on both sides, but I believe the numbers actually crunch up that Death Row costs more because of the required oversight in order to - at least in theory - not (b) too much.)

I'm not familiar with the "life imprisonment is nastier, so let's do that" argument at all.
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From:en_ki
Date:April 11th, 2011 03:48 pm (UTC)
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I remember making that argument as a kid. I don't think I ever really believed it, but had heard it around and was echoing it because it felt like a way to deflect the "this person was so bad they should die" argument.
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From:nancylebov
Date:April 11th, 2011 03:52 pm (UTC)
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How old are you? The folks who commented at Less Wrong hadn't heard the argument, and I think they're typically younger than I am (57).

It wouldn't surprise me if it's an argument which has gone out of fashion.
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From:en_ki
Date:April 11th, 2011 04:25 pm (UTC)
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I'm 31. I was, let's say, 10, and going to church with a lot of 30something-40something Unitarians.
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From:madfilkentist
Date:April 11th, 2011 06:33 pm (UTC)
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I've never heard the argument, and I'm 59.
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From:agrumer
Date:April 11th, 2011 07:54 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, this. I have vague recollections of hearing people say that, about life imprisonment being worse than death, and it always struck me as not so much a sincerely held belief as a counter-move to arguments about some criminals being so evil they deserve to die.
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From:squid314
Date:April 11th, 2011 05:52 pm (UTC)
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I would support a voluntary death penalty by people who don't want to be life imprisoned.

If I were sentenced to life imprisonment, thought it was very unlikely that I would be found innocent or pardoned later, and wasn't angry enough about the imprisonment to want to waste as many people's time and money as possible, I would take that option.
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From:dcseain
Date:April 11th, 2011 06:16 pm (UTC)
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I would support a voluntary death penalty by people who don't want to be life imprisoned.

I like that concept.
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From:ice_hesitant
Date:April 11th, 2011 06:40 pm (UTC)
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A voluntary "death penalty" is an interesting idea in the abstract, but in practice there are many ways to coerce someone into volunteering for things.

I could grant it as being acceptable as an extension of a general right to euthanasia that's administered by an organization completely independent from the correctional services. As its own thing, the conflicts of interests involved make me very, very uncomfortable.

I'm also opposed to the death penalty.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:April 11th, 2011 06:04 pm (UTC)
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sign me up for a+ b. I'm also pro-rehabilitation and anti-revenge. Emo Phillips maybe made something like your argument when he said capital punishment makes the state into a murderer but prison makes it into a gay dungeon master. Otherwise I've never heard it, no. Although I've heard lots of anxiety (US & UK) about prisons being too nice. Which is another way of saying not-prison isn't nice enough, but with different emotional packaging.
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From:agrumer
Date:April 11th, 2011 07:52 pm (UTC)
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Wait, is being a gay dungeon master worse than being a murderer? I know some gay DMs. And, come to think of it, at least one murderer.
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From:richardthinks
Date:April 12th, 2011 01:42 pm (UTC)
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dammit, I don't know why that came through anonymously. Sorry: it's me.
No, I don't think being a gay dungeon master is worse than being a murderer: provided everyone consents, I don't see anything wrong with being a gay dungeon master at all. I bet Emo doesn't think so either.

Supervising a rape facility is altogether another matter. It's just the only time I've heard that point made - that there are costs to prison in practice (notably in the US) that have to be weighed in any discussion of this kind. But when the question comes up in public it's pretty much always couched in absolutely abstract terms.
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From:andrewducker
Date:April 11th, 2011 07:15 pm (UTC)
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I dislike violence and restraint. But I believe that preventing harm takes precedence over this. I therefore feel that the state should perform the minimum necessary action to prevent harm. If a person is judged to be a permanently high risk of harm (and has shown this to be the case in some way, such as repeated offences or awful crimes) then permanent restraint seems justified as a harm-prevention strategy. But I'm not comfortable with the idea of punishment, I'd view it purely as a necessary evil.
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From:lysystratae
Date:April 11th, 2011 07:53 pm (UTC)
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I don't oppose capital punishment. I do think it should be reserved for those who, for all intents and purposes, are the human version of rabid dogs - a danger to others, and incurable.
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From:kgbooklog
Date:April 11th, 2011 08:23 pm (UTC)
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The pro-death arguments I hear are almost always about cost; I don't think I've ever heard the argument you're asking about. At least not in real life; fictional detectives will often let murderers commit suicide to avoid prison.
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From:bondo_ba
Date:April 12th, 2011 01:29 pm (UTC)
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Argentina here. There is NO capital punishment and "life" means a maximum of 25 years. This, and other progressive approaches to crime control (a pendular rebound following years of excessive force under military governments) have not been effective in reducing violent crime (quite the opposite, in fact), and insecurity is likely to cost the current ruling party the presidential elections in October, even though most Argentines are content with the economy.
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From:mauser
Date:April 19th, 2011 11:17 am (UTC)
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Recycling from a similar thread in a friend's journal:

It's funny. Folks on the left like to point out how the right is "Wrong" because they oppose abortion ("The right to life") but support the death penalty, and manage to ignore the plank in their own eye for holding the opposite positions, which are also contradictory.

EXCEPT, in the case of the Right, there's a simple principle that can be applied to both cases: the belief that life is precious. In the case of the Death Penalty, because life is precious, taking it from a criminal is the ultimate punishment. It's not about retribution, it's not about setting a social example (execution quotas by race and gender? Hell no!), it's not even about deterrence. But the left, not believing life is precious, can't get their minds around that concept. They think that if you put a murderer to death, it's over, so how is he going to know that he's being punished? They don't think of the death itself as punishment. (Maybe if we brought back drawing and quartering....)

It's really hard to come up with a common principle that covers the opposite view. But then, consistency isn't really the strong suit of leftist beliefs.
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From:nancylebov
Date:April 19th, 2011 02:05 pm (UTC)
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I don't think consistency is a feature of political sides-- I believe they're accidental conglomerations of beliefs.

Right wingers tend to be more pro-war than left wingers.
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From:mauser
Date:April 19th, 2011 08:31 pm (UTC)
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You'd think that, until you start running down the list of Wars the US has gotten into in the last century and which party was in control. Democrats got us into WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo, and now Libya. And the only nuclear strike in history was launched by a Democrat. Carter tried to go into Iran, but botched it. Obama has also been launching strikes into Pakistan, which the Pakistanis are starting to lose tolerance for.

On the other hand, the right is a little more consistent on national defense, rather than looking at the military as welfare with guns and uniforms.
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