Re: Is the death penalty Extropian?

Charlie Stross (
Mon, 30 Nov 1998 17:16:33 +0000

On Mon, Nov 30, 1998 at 11:02:00AM -0500, John Clark wrote:
> By the way, I have no problem with capital punishment (if it is painless)

I do.

I live in the UK. The UK abolished the death penalty about thirty years ago, replacing it with mandatory life imprisonment (with sentences served averaging over twenty years and some prisoners banged up for the rest of their life).

Over the past thirty years, something like 10-15% of all life sentences for murder have been overturned as unsafe and unsound. Under the previous regime these people would have been hanged.

However, the recidivism rate for murderers released on license from a life sentence is vanishingly small -- less than 0.2%.

If the UK had retained hanging, something like 50-100 innocent people would have been executed over the past 30 years, as compared to a much smaller number of innocent people being murdered by recidivists released on license. Conclusion: capital punishment kills more innocent people than it saves, if your main criterion for penal efficacy is prevention. (We can discount the deterrent argument -- studies as long ago as the 1860's proved that it wasn't a factor in the British penal system.)

Of course, if you have a penal system that releases murderers imprisoned for life on parole after six or seven years, you will get different figures out of the other end. But a properly enforced life sentence seems to work as a preventative without causing irreversible miscarriages of justice.

(If/when Alcor and friends can demonstrate the ability to revive people who've been frozen, I will change my opinion on the death penalty; but until someone comes up with a reversible implementation, I will object on the fundamental basis that the administration of justice is not perfect and it is in utilitarian terms better not to use the death penalty. I have lesser objections -- based on the point that the death penalty is exercised by the state, and I don't think the state should have the power of life or death over its citizens, but that's an opinion, rather than an objection based on hard numbers.)