From the October 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard
The law and order card is always the trump that struggling governments use to divert attention away from the crisis created by the capitalist system they help to run. Just as crime, law and order have been at the forefront of the political agenda in Britain, so too is this the case in America now if all else fails, there is always the scapegoat, the working class, potential miscreants and criminals who are responsible for social decline.
The only Western industrialized state that still applies the death penalty is the United States. Just as grotesque, in this land where its constitution proclaims the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", is that come election time candidate’s stance in the capital punishment debate can win or lose him or her a seat in Congress or the Senate.
In 1988 Democrat Michael Dukakis voiced his opposition to the death penalty and lost many votes in the presidential elections. Bill Clinton, as Governor of Arkansas, was all too aware of this when he later sanctioned the execution of a mentally subnormal teenager — he had in mind the 80 percent of the American electorate who belong to the pro-capital punishment camp.
To what extent Clinton’s victory last year in the race to the White House depended on his pro-death penalty views is open to question. But his views on the death penalty and on crime in America in general are now being used by Democrats to regain the political initiative. Basically, Clinton wants $3.4 billion funding for a plan that will put an extra 50,000 police officers on the streets. He also wants to expand the number of crimes punishable by death and to limit death row inmates to one habeas corpus appeal within six months of sentence. He also believes the law's governing the sale of handguns should be tightened calling for a 5-day waiting period for handgun purchases!
If any department in the American Establishment is devoid of logic it is certainly that which is responsiblc for law and order. In 1990 (the last year for which statistics are available), 37,155 Americans died of gunshot wounds. If this is not an abominable figure (3.000 have died in Northern Ireland since 1968), there are an estimated 200,000,000 firearms in circulation in America. Yet the Clinton camp have revealed no plans to curb the individual’s "right" to possess a firearm.
At present some 2.500 prisoners await execution on death row in 36 states. The statistics here are just as baffling. Between 1973 and 1988, executions and the lengthy appeal process they entailed cost Florida tax payers $57 million. Which is $3.2 million per execution. At the same time, a prisoner held in maximum security cost $40,000 per year — twice the cost had he been educated at Harvard. In the state of Texas the cost of an execution case is the equivalent to the cost of imprisoning three men for "life".
Anyone with a grain of common sense will realize that an extra 50.000 police officers, all with arrest quotas to meet, will mean a jump in prison statistics. Clinton could only say this on the matter: "The plan is tough. It will put police on the streets and criminals in jail" (Guardian, 12 August).
Perhaps no-one has told him that there are some one million prisoners in the United States, housed in federal, state and county jails the highest incarceration rate in the world, with imprisonment, rising at the rate of 13 percent per year, and the criminal justice system processing 1,500 new prisoners per day. Little wonder that new prison construction costs are running at $6 billion per year.
Against all the crass statistics on the vast amounts spent on imprisonment must be set the penny-pinching when it comes to executing death row inmates. States that do use the death penalty arc finding it cost efficient to use the lethal injection method of execution - the equipment costs a pittance.
Oklahoma has been using the lethal injection method since 1977. Apparently prison authorities did not want to fork out the $60,000 needed to fix the electric chair while, the $200,000 asking price for a gas chamber was out of the question. Surely a bullet to the head would have cost the state no more than one-dollar per year!
1977 was also the year that Texas’ Governor claimed lethal injection would "provide some dignity with death". Where is the dignity in being forcibly strapped into a chair by men in uniform and injected with a lethal cocktail of drugs?
In all forms of execution the prisoner suffers pain and trauma. Sitting in the gas chamber in 1983. Jimmy Lee Gray convulsed for eight minutes before dying. In 1985 William Van Diver took 17 minutes to die in the electric chair, requiring five charges. Observers reported seeing his flesh smoke. Even where lethal injection is used, groans have been heard 18 minutes into the execution.
Any true Socialist is appalled at the idea of the state having the right to execute its citizens. The death penalty in any form is a blatant violation of human rights — the most undignified and irreversible of all punishments. How do you resurrect an innocent man? State executions are in reality the state taking revenge on the wage-slave for a mistake he or she committed because of the frustrations caused by the contradictions of the capitalist system that they are conditioned to exist in.
Those who advocate the death penalty tend to use the time-honoured argument that the death penalty is a deterrent, that it helps to reduce crime. However, throughout the world, no sociologist nor any export hired to study the subject has been able to demonstrate conclusively that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to the commission of the crime for which it is exacted. Moreover, there is no proof that the abolition of the death penalty will lead to the nightmare consequences predicted by its propagandists.
In the United States in 1985, FBI research revealed that the number of law enforcement officers killed was almost four times as high in states with the death penalty than in states without it. This stark revelation led reformers to conclude that legal executions may actually stimulate violent crime by exemplifying society’s approval of killing.
The equation Capitalism = Mass Inequality. Frustration. Murder for Gain State Execution is backed up by further statistics. Since 1972, 60 percent of death row inmates were unemployed at the time of their crimes. Of the 2.500 on America’s death rows, 65 percent were in low-paid, unskilled jobs. A study carried out on the Texas judicial system found that prisoners with court appointed lawyers were over twice as likely to be given the death penalty as those who could afford a reputable defence team.
The American criminal justice system is also racist with black people murdering whites 11 times more likely to face execution than for white people murdering blacks. In Florida the ratio is 40-1! Of all men executed for rape since 1930, 90 percent were black. There are six black people in prison for every four in higher education.
State executions is capitalism at its ugliest. It is the state giving up on the individual and admitting that the social system under capitalism is not working — that the only solution to capital crimes is death.
As Clinton refuses to address the real problems facing America, and to look to solutions that have already been tried and failed in the past, American wage-slaves can expect a tough time ahead should they look for a quick way to bridge the gap between poverty and wealth.