Re: Is the death penalty Extropian?

Charlie Stross (
Wed, 2 Dec 1998 13:06:18 +0000

On Mon, Nov 30, 1998 at 10:16:35PM -0500, John Clark wrote:
> Charlie Stross <>
> >Over the past thirty years, something like 10-15% of all life
> >sentences for murder have been overturned as unsafe and unsound.
> I'm surprised the percentage is so low, it happens all the time in the
> USA. Sentences are overturned because a judge thinks

[ snip ]

Nope. Only happens in the UK if new evidence comes to light that demonstrates that the person convicted of an offense was (a) fitted up by the cops, or (b) has a cast-iron alibi (DNA testing proves semen deposited by a rapist/- murderer is incompatible with the convict, for example) or (c) someone confesses that they lied and there's some more corroborating evidence to prove that they're not lying this time. "Unsafe and unsound" is the Court of Appeal's way of saying that the judicial system fucked up, and they _hate_ doing that.

> >If the UK had retained hanging, something like 50-100 innocent
> >people would have been executed over the past 30 years
> I don't see how you figure that, certainly your previous statement has
> nothing to do with it.

Based on life sentences handed out for murder. The life sentence is mandatory for (first-degree) murder, as hanging was prior to the change-over. (Another point of difference; in the UK, prisoners under sentence of death got just one chance to appeal, and were usually executed within four weeks of sentence. No time for that extra evidence to show up.)

The Court of Appeal is currently working through a backlog of people who were hanged in the 1940's and 1950's and 1960's who, it appears, were almost certainly not guilty.

> >However, the recidivism rate for murderers released on license
> >from a life sentence is vanishingly small -- less than 0.2%.
> Amazing, only one murderer in 500 murders again! All I can say is that
> the experience the USA has had with recidivism is radically different.

What's the average length of sentence served for "life" in the USA? I read somewhere that it was about seven years. In the UK, a lifer isn't elligible for release on license until a minimum of 8 years; the mean is about 18, with some long-term prisoners told that their tarriff is "until you die of old age in prison". Even then, release on license is equivalent to very tight parole -- subject to supervision for life by the probation service, who can yank the lifer back into prison at any time if they deem it necessary.

"Serve eighteen to twenty years, then go onto a strict probation regime with day-to-day supervision for the rest of your natural life" -- that's what a life sentence means in the UK.

> >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.
> How could you even set up such a study in the 1860's or today that
> could even pretend to be scientific? I have no doubt that there are
> lots of such studies, subsidized by the taxpayer naturally, I just don't
> see how any of them could be worth a damn, not even the ones that
> support my views.

The 1860's study was quite simple, really. Until 1859, hangings were carried out in public; they were then moved indoors. Prisoners were questioned, and it was determined that more than 90% of those sentenced to hang had personally witnessed a hanging for the offense they themselves were found guilty of. They must therefore have been aware that committing an offense of that type would get them scragged -- but they did so anyway.

The execution rate of this period did not significantly increase or decrease with the move to indoor executions.

Again: replacing [indoor] hangings with strict life sentences didn't significantly increase or decrease the murder rate in the UK.

Put the two items together and you have a strongish argument against the deterrent effect working.