Defending the Lives of Convicts

Defending the Lives of Convicts

On occasion, I find myself in the awkward position of defending a person, an institution or an action that I personally find profoundly distasteful. I suspect I’m not alone.

Any of us who understand the nature of democratic government and the nature of individual rights at some point discovers that defending a right means going against the preferences of the majority . . . even against our own preferences. It’s what is necessary if our society as a whole and its people individually are truly to be free.

So I must applaud the Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee for undertaking a serious, independent investigation of alleged abuses in our state’s prisons.

I know some folks who view those sent to prison as deserving of whatever they experience there. I know people who think less of the value of a convicted felon’s life than they do of a stray dog’s. For these individuals, breaking the social covenant in a manner serious enough to get prison time (as opposed to jail time) leads naturally and appropriately to the loss of any claim to have rights.

But that’s wrong, on multiple levels.

First, one doesn’t have to be an ax murderer to end up in prison. In Florida, one can be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison for possessing 21 grams (less than one ounce) of marijuana. That’s possession. It’s not peddling the stuff to your neighbors, let alone your neighbors’ kids. And 21 grams probably amounts to a 2 to 3 month supply for one individual. Not exactly grounds for capital punishment.

More fundamentally, we as a society have agreed, for a long time, that if and when the state is going to take the life of a human being in cold blood, as we do on Death Row, it only will be for the most horrific of crimes. Furthermore, the death sentence cannot actually be imposed without the participation of multiple individuals representing not only the judiciary and the criminal justice system but the political system as well (through the warrants signed by the governor). It’s too serious a decision, and too permanent, to treat any other way.

Yet for reasons that remain unclear (hence the investigation), more inmates died in Florida’s prisons in 2014 than in any other year in the history of the state. The increase, year-over-year, was roughly 13 percent (the prison population, from all I can see, did not increase at a comparable rate). This de facto administration of the death sentence on individuals sentenced to prison, but not to execution, ought to get our attention. It has gotten the attention of the senators on the Criminal Justice Committee.

Not because we think the world of the men and women behind bars. Just because every human being has certain fundamental rights. These men and women may have lost their liberty for a time, and some or all of their property, because of their choices, but they do not deserve to be at risk of losing their life.