The Edmond Sun

Opinion

August 24, 2012

How can civilized societies define punishment?

EDMOND — A trio of items in the news this week raises an interesting question: What does society hope to accomplish by inflicting punishment on criminals? Let’s take a look.

Item 1: Pakistani authorities arrested a girl who, according to some reports, is as young as 11 years old and may suffer from some developmental disorder, possibly Down’s syndrome. She is accused of committing the crime of blasphemy for desecrating the Koran. Guilt, in her case, may lead to a life sentence. Authorities reportedly took her parents into “protective custody” after an angry mob threatened violence against the child, her Christian family and other Christian families living in the neighborhood. Question: What good purpose is served by punishing this child for blasphemy?

Item 2: Gary Haugen is on Oregon’s death row. In 1981, he murdered his girlfriend’s mother and, while in prison for that crime, he participated in the murder of another inmate for which he was convicted and sentenced to death. Gov. John Kitzhaber, a vocal critic of the death penalty, granted a blanket reprieve to all death penalty prisoners confined in Oregon. Haugen said, “Thanks but no thanks” and went to court to secure a ruling that he could drop all appeals and reject the reprieve and go forward with his execution. Earlier this month, a senior circuit judge held that Haugen cannot be legally forced to accept the reprieve. He can reject the governor’s offer of clemency and have his execution by lethal objection carried out. Once these court proceedings are concluded, a hearing will be scheduled to set Haugen’s execution date. Question: What good purpose is served by putting Haugen to death?

Item 3: Researchers from the University of Utah submitted a survey to 281 judges in 19 states seeking to determine the role brain pathology plays on the severity of criminal sentencing. The results are published in the latest issue of the journal Science. According to the analysis of these completed surveys, American judges are likely to be more lenient on criminals whose violent behavior is shown to result in whole or in part from some brain abnormality as demonstrated on an MRI scan. Question: What good purpose is served by moderating the sentences of those whose brain abnormalities interfere with their abilities to make choices?

In the case of the disabled Pakistani girl, we can say, no matter how we may feel about blasphemy laws, infliction of severe punishment on children for religious offenses cannot be justified. No civilized theory of crime and punishment can countenance the imposition of massive penalties on children — especially children who, for whatever reason, cannot fully appreciate the gravity of the offenses they are accused of committing.

In the case of the tendency of American jurists to be lenient with those suffering from brain pathology, we have a natural tendency to make allowances. No one wants to inflict punishment on those who lack the normal capability to make intelligent choices. But we must be mindful of those who seek to exploit this natural tendency to be lenient. Lately, we have seen resourceful lawyers advance such theories of defense as, “My client is not responsible because she was under the influence of a package of sugar rich Twinkies.” Before we allow our penal system to be manipulated by ever more colorful appeals to the unusual constraints on normal behavior, we must be sure the underlying science is sound. It’s one thing to be soft-hearted and another to be soft-headed.

In the case of Gary Haugen, there is a growing worldwide chorus of social critics who claim the imposition of the death penalty, in all cases, is barbaric. Amnesty International announced the launching of a movement to eliminate capital punishment around the world in 2013. There are potent arguments on either side of the capital punishment argument. Those in favor point to the Haugen case and say, “All other considerations aside, once the death sentence is carried out, Gary Haugen will never take another life.” On the other hand, opponents say “Imposition of the death penalty makes the state, itself, a murderer.” No matter which side of the capital punishment argument you find yourself on, you must admit that Mr. Haugen has the right to decide for himself whether he will accept an unwanted reprieve.

Each of these three news items raises controversial issues concerning the rational role of punishment in civilized society. It’s good, in reflecting on these issues, to keep in mind a quote by Albert Einstein: “If people are good only because they fear punishment and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.

MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.

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