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Dispatches from Dr. Joel Dvoskin: February 2006

Crips gang co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams has been executed in California for the 1979 murders of four people.

Whatever one thinks about the death penalty, it can't possibly be a good thing to have a punishment occur 26 years after the crime. Suppose for a moment that capital punishment really did have a deterrent effect on would-be criminals, and that public execution really did help the families of victims to gain "closure." Finally, suppose that an offense was so heinous that no other form of retribution would feed a society's hunger for vengeance. Even if all these things were true in a given case, what thinking person would delay the imposition of such a sentence for 26 years?

It is as if America's many criminal justice systems are trying as hard as they can to get it wrong. If this were a boxing match, there would be an investigation, because it looks like we're trying to lose.

Psychologists have known for decades a great deal about punishment and its effect on human behavior. It is true that under some circumstances, punishment can alter behavior, though not always in the desired direction. First, punishment tends to change behavior only in the short run, when the memory of punishment is fresh. To the extent that the person remembers the punishment and doesn't like it, he will likely alter his behavior in some manner to avoid experiencing the punishment again. There are at least two ways to accomplish this goal: 1) Stop offending; or 2) Stop getting caught.

Punishment works when behavior is highly scrutinized. Crime is not the reason that people get punished. Make no mistake about it; people get punished for getting caught. Even dumb little kids figure this out pretty quickly, and instead of learning not to misbehave—they're kids, for heaven's sake— they are far more likely to learn to misbehave when their caregivers are not watching.

Punishment must be linked to the undesired behavior—in this case the crime—as clearly as possible. For example, if George Washington tells his parents that he chopped down the cherry tree, it is important for George to understand that he is not being punished for his honesty. In other words, it is important to know what the person being punished thinks about the punishment. It is important for them to understand that the punishment is specifically in response to the undesired behavior.

In order for this to occur, punishment must closely follow in time from the undesired behavior. Psychologists call this temporal contiguity, and it does not mean 26 years. Especially in America, the land of the free and the home of the short attention span, where we get our news in sound bites from CNN and USA Today, it is a virtual impossibility that anyone on death row sits around thinking about their crime. Having worked on death row, I can tell you that the main thing they think about is their latest appeal. Nor is there even a remote chance that today's 18-25 year old thugs will consider the consequences of Stanley Williams crime, when that crime occurred long before they were born.

When punishment works, however brief its effects, it tends to affect the person who experiences the punishment. Since the punished capital defendant is now dead, there is no possibility whatsoever that we have "taught him a lesson." Nor is the lesson aimed at anyone else who needs to learn it. Oddly, American executions are only witnessed by public officials, a few law-abiding friends of the defendant, and perhaps the family of the victims. Yet none of these people are the intended targets of the deterrent effects of the execution.

It has been argued that capital punishment is necessary in order to reify, for those of us who obey the law, that there are consequences for breaking it. Apparently, there is a theory that our moral compasses are so brittle and flawed that the only reason we don't kill people is because we might get executed for it in a few decades. But in order to gain this dubious benefit of capital punishment, it is absolutely imperative that the punishment be viewed as just. No one can say with straight face that our current system of criminal justice is accurate enough to make such a guarantee; hundreds of convicted felons, some on death row, have been proven innocent in the last few years. Admittedly, the percentage of proven errors is quite small, but when death is the consequence, our tolerance for error is supposed to go down, way down.

Of course, an execution requires not only the action of prosecutors, judges and juries, but eventually also the inaction of governors. Does anyone believe that the average gubernatorial decision to commute or not commute is based on justice? One can only imagine the frantic polling of various constituencies that lead to such a decision, with reelection campaigns looming in the very near future.

Having worked with violent criminals most of my adult life, I can tell you that some of them are so ugly, so mean, so callous, and so evil that I truly understand the desire to kill them. For some of them, their only apparent redeeming virtue is that they are human beings, and occasionally I even wonder about that. Some crimes are so extreme, so unnecessary, and so inexcusable that I understand our urge to kill the perpetrator. But what I can't understand is that every single reason offered for the death penalty would lead us to do it differently. We couldn't get it more wrong if we tried. We kill people decades after the fact, in a private ceremony, for patently political reasons, and nobody thinks the system works well.

The point of this article is not more and quicker executions. Nor do I recommend an unseemly, televised ritual of death as some sort of misguided "scared straight" program. The point is that the manner in which we have implemented capital punishment in America makes it very clear that our alleged reasons for doing it are dishonest. Sadly, we kill people for the same reasons that they most often kill people—because we're angry. In the case of Stanley Williams, our anger festered for 26 years, and ultimately, nobody learned a damned thing.

It's like we're trying to get it wrong.

Joel A. Dvoskin, Ph.D., ABPP
Diplomate in Forensic Psychology
University of Arizona College of Medicine
President-elect, American Psychology-Law Society

© 2006 Joel A. Dvoskin. All rights reserved.

For more information about Dr. Joel A. Dvoskin, or to read more articles by this leading leading forensic psychologist, click here.


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