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In Defense Of The Death Penalty

The title of this post is somewhat strange and not the kind of thing you’d expect from a Life Coach writing a self development blog, but sometimes it’s necessary to push the boundaries.

Today I’m going to explain why I think capital punishment is not just useful, but fundamental for the success of any modern society. I’m also going to explain why we should stop pussy-footing about and put the many hundreds of people on death row out of their misery as soon as logistically possible.

The purpose of incarceration isn’t to exact revenge, or least no Government would ever admit as such. The purpose is to reform or ‘correct’ people. To show perpetrators the error of their ways and help rehabilitate them so that they can return to society without posing a threat.

If we presume the above is true (and I think we have to), then what is the purpose of keeping somebody in prison for the rest of their life? If there is zero chance they will ever be released to demonstrate they have been rehabilitated and can live a normal life, seriously, what’s the point?

In 2008 the cost of keeping somebody in jail was between $100 and $130 per day depending on the area of the country.

That equates nationwide to roughly $40,000 per prisoner per annum, or roughly the equivalent of the national average wage.

It is not unusual for people that have committed murder, rape and other such heinous crimes to spend a very long time in prison. Fifty years is not that unusual and they never get a gold watch either.

The reason is the majority of serious violent crime is committed by men between the ages of 18 to 40. Therefore, they still have a lot of their life left, at least statistically speaking. In other words, these people can cost the State as much as a million dollars in their life time to keep with zero chance of rehabilitation or release.

Once again I ask, what’s the point?

At the end of 2008 the US had more people in prison than the population of Switzerland. If it was a country it would be the 94th biggest in the world of people and have a GDP in the region of $300 billion which is more than Argentina, South Africa and Portugal.

Between 1968 and 1976 there were zero executions in the United States. In that time the murder rate rose by a staggering 50%. For the next 20 years the murder rate fluctuated backwards and forwards, but was within 15%, of the 22,000 per annum figure.

Then in 1994 we started to see a decline in homicides. Guess what was happening at the same time?

That’s right, execution rates were starting to rise as more States reintroduced the death penalty or at least started  to impose it on prisoners that had been sentenced to death.

At the end of 2008 there were 3,215 people on death row awaiting their fate, many of whom have been there a decade or more. Based on the cost of keeping a ‘normal’ prisoner at $40k per annum, that equates to $128 million in annual expenditure.

Except it doesn’t, it’s much higher than that.

Death row facilities cost a lot more to run than standard prisons. Also the inmates get access to a legal process that towards the end is costing a small fortune as appeal after appeal is lodged to get the inevitable delayed or even over-turned.

The average prisoner is on death row for over 10 years. During that time it will have cost you and me the tax payer in excess of $1.5 billion to look after all of the condemned, and that’s presuming the number doesn’t grow which historically speaking is highly unlikely.

That’s a huge amount of money I think you can agree, and it’s money that could be spent on education, medical care or even foreign aid (something the US lags way behind the rest of the First World nations with).

If we sentence somebody to death we should mean death and just do it. I have little sympathy with people that join the Armed Forces and then bleat about it when they get sent on a tour of duty to somewhere like Afghanistan. WTF did you join up for, to play games?

The same goes for death row inmates. If you get sentenced to death, that’s not a bargaining position, it shouldn’t be the starting point for years, even decades of legal wrangling. That is what the trial was for in the first place!

If it were made law that all people sentenced to capital punishment had to either be put to death or have their sentence over-turned within 6 months, think of the money, hassle and distress that could be avoided.

That sounds callous in some ways, but having a family member on death row through no fault of your own (and please let us not tar convicts families with the same brush)must be absolutely agony.

Also, let’s think of the victims families too. Maybe they need closure, maybe they need to put a terrible situation behind them and move on. Surely appeal after appeal just drags up terrible memories and makes them feel all the old emotions again.

Where is the mercy in that? Who are the winners in this situation other than the lawyers?

If you too think we should use the death penalty more than we do I’m sure that has all made perfect sense to you. If you don’t, you probably think I’m talking bollocks.

If you have a strong opinion on a subject and somebody disagrees with you, then you’ll look for reasons to prove them wrong. You’ll disregard (often unconsciously) contrary evidence and latch onto anything that supports your viewpoint. It’s what we pretty much all do because to do otherwise means we have to accept we were wrong with our initial assessment.

Therefore, if death by lethal injection strikes you as a reasonable approach to dealing with hardened criminals, you’ll have no problem agreeing with me and all those stats will seem like common sense.

The reality is, I abhor the death penalty, it sickens me to the stomach and I’m sure if you have read many of my posts you’ll have smelt a whole box full of rats.

So what prompted such a post then?

I’m always talking about being open-minded and that most people think they are open-minded when they aren’t. So I wanted to take a look at something I am fairly close minded about and adopt a radically different stance.

I spent a couple of hours reading up on the topic to see what I could learn, but I was only looking for facts that backed up my (temporary) belief and disregarded everything to the contrary.

I wanted to really step into my own Discomfort Zone and see if I could genuinely try and defend what to me is indefensible.

The facts you have read are true and I have no doubt there are more that can support this argument I also wanted to see if I immersed myself in this topic my opinion would shift at all.

Did it? Maybe a little bit, but not much.

Now it would be easy for you to say,

“What kind of life coach are you Brownson if you can’t change your own beliefs? How can you expect to be able to help other people change theirs?

And that would be a great question and one that was troubling me last night when I asked it myself.

Then I was struck by the real (and in the light of day obvious) reason nothing much shifted for me.

At first I thought it was because I simply didn’t want to change badly enough. But that didn’t really stack up. I’ve no doubt I wanted to retain the belief that Santa existed until my best friend proved it wasn’t true last Christmas.

Beliefs come and go, often oblivious and irrespective of what we think about them.

After all, evidence is evidence if we’re prepared to see it and there is no subjectivity involved. It doesn’t matter how much you believe there are no calories in a Big Mac, if you eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner you’re going to get fat and sick.

Well there obviously is subjectivity with the death penalty and there is no definitive proof that it’s a good thing or a bad thing, irrespective of what I, or anybody else wants to believe.

So why are most peoples belief about issues like this so intransigent?

Then it dawned on me that I wasn’t really dealing with a belief in isolation, I was dealing with a belief that was intertwined with my values. How frickin obvious!

I do indeed help clients change the beliefs they hold that are preventing them from moving forward. However, the one thing I NEVER do is mess around with their values.

Values are sacrosanct in my book and I have no right imposing mine on anybody else.

I am almost ashamed (but not quite) to say it has never crossed my mind, that when clients don’t change in the face of overwhelming evidence that I could have occasionally missed the fact I’m really dealing with a value and not a belief.

After all I do a lot of work round values up front and genuinely believe any coach that doesn’t is in the wrong business.

How is this useful you may be wondering? Well I have to admit it’s still work in progress for me and I’m not totally sure, but it could be this:

Some people that constantly try to make changes and fail, may not only be being held back by a disempowering belief system. They may also be trying to do something that is out of alignment with their values and that’s going to be close to impossible to do and is never going to feel good.

I’d really love your take on this. Did I do a good job of presenting my case in favor of capital punishment or could you see through me?

Could you have some sticking points because of your values rather than your desire to change?

By the way I do NOT want this to turn into a debate on the death penalty!

24 comments to In Defense Of The Death Penalty

  • I think this was a very good post. And I have been thinking a lot about that subject. Not about the death penalty, but about the search for that what supports our own beliefs.

    You said “If you have a strong opinion on a subject and somebody disagrees with you, then you’ll look for reasons to prove them wrong”.

    I think that is not always a bad thing. Because that is what drives us, what makes us want to search.

    That we disregard contrary evidence may not be a good thing in the end, because, well, you can’t keep ignoring everything.

    But at least you did search and along the way probably discovered many things you did not know before. And the harder you have to search to prove you are right, the more you will find.

    The secret, I guess, is to, at a certain point, mix all those findings together and look at them with an open mind.

  • Thanks for a rather thought provoking post! I think the gist of what you are saying is in the following quote:

    “Values are sacrosanct in my book and I have no right imposing mine on anybody else.”

    The problem with that philosophy is government (i.e. the people who get involved with running other peoples lives) almost by definition is in the business of governing values *without their direct choice.*

    So if you have no right, what gives others the right to impose their values on you, me, or anyone else?

    What you are suggesting only works if everyone is on the same page. And I mention politics because that is one of the few places that someone elses values can be forced on all of us; a very dangerous approach!

  • Quint

    I am very impressed with what you accomplished with this post. I have been involved with personal development for many years and it is pretty rare that reading a post or article causes the kind of rapid shift in perspective that yours did today. Now that I see the truth of what you are saying it seems obvious, but it took your article to help me see that truth.

    @Marvin
    I have to disagree that the government forcing values on others is a “very dangerous approach.” For a society to exist we must all agree to some kind of social contract that allows us to exist in groups together. The organized, complex systems we have in place today could not exist without that social contract. The contract will definitely change over time and from place to place, but it must exist or we will have anarchy.

  • @ Annemieke – If we are simply looking for reasons to back up what we already know, that isn’t learning, it’s being stubborn and close-minded imho.

    We all delete, distort and generalize information and we just accentuate that unless we adopt a genuine attitude of curiosity and a belief that we may be wrong.

    Of course that isn’t true 100% of the time, but it largely is.

    @ Marvin – Firstly, I was talking from a coaching perspective and with my clients, I wasn’t talking about societal values which are a totally different ball game.

    Having said that I still disagree somewhat I’m afraid. When we vote we are voting based on our values and will chose the party most closely aligned to us.

    We then hand over a mandate to that party and say, get on with it.

    There really is no other choice, and whereas it isn’t even close to being perfect I’m not sure I’d say it was ‘very dangerous’

    Unless that is, you live in a country where the Government will act outside the law.

    Ok, ok, I feel sure that happens in every country, but you know what I mean.

    @ Quint – Thanks a lot I appreciate that and I agree with your second paragraph.

  • @Tim: I agree that looking for reasons to back up what we already know is stubborn and close-minded.

    But that does not mean it has no value. I think we all do it to a certain extent. If not we would get carried away with everything that comes along.

    And the moment has to come where we at least consider the possibility of the opposite side, especially if the pressure goes up so to speak.

    But in the meanwhile, while searching for ‘evidence’ we get on a quest that can be very valuable, especially in retrospect.

    But indeed, just sticking to our beliefs is not learning.

  • Tony

    Interesting.

    I’d just finished Steve Pavlina’s latest newsletter article on “violating expectations” (a good read by the way). And then I read this post.

    So when I started reading I was thinking you were doing some mad SP experiment in “violating” us, or at least our expectations. ;)

    By the end of the article I wasn’t so sure. I guess it was all just coincidence.

  • @ Annemieke – I didn’t say it had no value. What I think is that if we are ONLY looking for evidence to back up an already entrenched position, then it has little value.

    I bet most people if they were honest have at some point gone looking for evidence to back up an opinion, seen contrary evidence and consciously ignored it. I know I have!

    Hopefully I wouldn’t now, but 20 years ago was a different story.

    @ Tony – The funny this is my original draft said:

    So what prompted such a post then? Am I just another self-development blogger losing the plot in public? Maybe.

    Then I thought it may create more comments than the damn post!

    Yeh it was coincidence mate I haven’t read any SP in quite a while.

  • Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by TimBrownson: I’m gonna take some shit for this. In Defense of The Death Penalty http://su.pr/1Vltyq

  • I’m not exactly sure how I feel about the death penalty. Part of me doesn’t feel altogether comfortable about it because it allows for the possibility of an innocent man being put to death.

    That said… I don’t like what I perceive to sometimes be popular amongst people: Focusing on the victimizer instead of the victim and his family. To do that is really, really backwards.

    I like to make an effort to *focus* on who’s either no longer with us because of the actions of the victimizer or who’s been violated in such horrific ways that they’ll never, ever be the same. That’s where I make an effort for my focus to go.

    So… though it would be easy for me to get on some pedestal and make the assertion that the death penalty is so closed minded and all: I’ve never had someone I love murdered by someone else. And, yes, I think it’s very reasonable to conclude that when the death penalty is enacted it does bring some relief to the loved ones who will no longer be able to enjoy the person who’s life was taken. But you know, my opinion doesn’t necessarily count all that much. We’d have to ask the loved ones who are forced to live out the rest of their lives without any hope of ever having any connection, ever again — with the person that was closest to them. We’d have to ask them… not people who can only theorize about it from the comfort of never experiencing anything remotely like it.

  • As far as you presenting your case (the other side)… I think you did a pretty good job… and glad you mentioned the victim’s family and what the death penalty could do for them.

    However… I’m not sure I completely agree with this:

    “The purpose of incarceration isn’t to exact revenge, or least no Government would ever admit as such.”

    ‘Revenge’ is a loaded word. And I agree, incarceration is not for revenge. And while I definitely agree that the prison system’s **main** objective should be to reform people, there’s also an element of justice involved. That people should ‘pay’ for their crimes in a sense.

    So I think the purpose of incarceration is not so monolithic as only to reform perpetrators and help them to live better lives; they’re also being punished for what they did.

    Of course, the main objective of ‘punishment’ is to help people **change** their ways. So… perhaps we don’t disagree enitrely…

    Problem is, though, when people commit spectacularly heinous crimes, they’ve kinda forfeited the right to return to society. Or at least they have to serve for, many, many years.

    Either way… though I haven’t in any way studied how our incarceration system actually works — I’ve heard that it doesn’t really help people reform their behavior so I’m all in favor of **improving** it so that the focus of reforming criminal behavior can be given its due emphasis in the incarceration system in the United States.

  • @ BF – Whoa shaky ground here because I really don’t want to start a capital punishment debate and the entire post was meant to stimulate debate on values and being blinkered.

    I wrote about the death penalty because it is a topic that polarizes people and usually kills debate and encourages shouting.

    The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners, so something is horribly wrong, dontchya think?

    1 in 100 adults is under detention of some form or other in this country which is a country mile more than any other country on the planet.

  • [...] some people never even got to the end of the post such was their disgust in what I had to say. Wondering what you think. __________________ Self Development For People With A Sense Of Humor A Daring Adventure [...]

  • Great post, Tim.

    The problem with the death penalty (and so many similar issues) is that there are so many factors that come into play that it’s really difficult to determine priorities.

    I’m still not settled on whether I’m for the death penalty or against. A big concern for me is the fairness of the US judicial system. How many innocent people do you reckon are serving time? I dread to think that innocent people are given the death penalty, which makes the issue difficult for me to evaluate.

    On the other hand, I believe the UK system is too lenient towards criminals. If somebody trespasses on your property, I believe you have the right to do whatever is necessary to ensure your own safety and well-being. Whether you kill or maim a trespasser is their fault, not yours. US law recognizes that, UK law doesn’t.

    For example:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/jan/10/myleene-klass-knife-intruders

    It’s important that we consider how criminals are convicted before we discuss the severity of their punishment.

    I definitely agree with you on the mechanics of open-mindedness. I’m thinking about this subject a lot lately. And a blog post is in the works. :)

  • @Tim: My point was actually that only looking for evidence to back up beliefs can have A LOT of value. That does not make it right and it certainly does not mean that I am all for it.

    What I mean is that if someone is desperate to back up his beliefs against opponents, it makes him want to search very hard. And of course he is not interested in opposing facts because he can not research each and every one of them as it holds him back from his search.

    But my point was that there has to be a shift at some point. Where everything he found has to be looked at with an open mind. Like you are doing here with this post.

    One answer on the question about death penalties might be that there is no universal answer to that. There might be times, places or societies where it is justified.

    And maybe that is so with every value. But the research in itself might be of more value than the original beliefsystem.

  • I tracked across to you from Wellsphere. I remember hearing on the radio that after 30 years of age we have less chance of changing our personalities unless we experience a life altering catastrophe – otherwise, at best we may be able to tinker with about 5% of our character – pretty gloomy really.

  • @ Haider – Maybe I should open up the debate because I certainly have a number of thoughts on what you say. OTOH, I’
    m not sure this is the right place to be discussing such matters.

    Thanks for the comment though, much appreciated!

    @ Annemieke – Ok I think I misunderstood, I get what you’re saying now and I think you’re right! Sorry for the confusion.

    @ Maddy – I’m skeptical of that, if that is, the person really wants to change. Check out the excellent book ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’ by Norman Doidge.

  • [...] some people never even got to the end of the post such was their disgust in what I had to say. Wondering what you think. __________________ Self Development For People With A Sense Of Humor A Daring Adventure [...]

  • I was recently at a 2-day life coaching training.

    When we talked about beliefs, a lady (around 40 years old, I think) piped up and said she still believes in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. She knows that they aren’t real, but she still believes in them.

    Then she went a bit deeper, and we discovered she believes that because it aligns with her values, by “staying in touch with her roots” and “being connected to her people’s culture”.

    I thought it was a really cute example :)

  • @ Vlad – I think that’s called denial mate ;-)

    BTW, who did you do your training with?

  • [...] In Defense Of The Death Penalty: Fascinating post by Tim Brownson about the power of our beliefs & values. Don’t be too [...]

  • Hi Tim,

    This post reminds me about the brilliant ‘Mistakes were made (but not by me)’ which handles the topic of beliefs, and how they control the way we perceive the world. The book also focuses a lot on cognitive dissonance – the state of being when one of our strong beliefs is being violated.

    In that book there is also a lot of talk about police and the prison system. When it comes to death penalty, the big problem – at least in my eyes – is that the judicial system is not infallible. Many innocent people have been sentenced to death and executed, and this will continue as long as the death penalty exists, or until we can remove the human element from deciding whether or not someone committed a crime, and come up with a way to find out the 100% absolute truth.

    According to the book quite a many prisoners have been committed because they confessed to a crime. Confession was seen as the holy grail guaranteeing that the person is guilty. However, it is possible to implant false memories on people, and when the interrogation practices of police were examined it was found out that quite often they caused such mental stress to the suspects that they would have confessed anything – be it true or not.

    //sami

  • @ Sami – I don’t think I’ve heard of that book, but it sounds cool, thanks.

    Yeh there have been enough cases of innocent people being put to death it makes me shudder. The West Midlands Serious Crime Squad was disbanded after they fitted up the ‘Birmingham 6′ pub bombers in the 1970′s after 2 bombs killed 21 people.

    All 6 guys were later released but would have been undoubtedly put to death if capital punishment had been available to the prosecutors.

  • Laurie

    HI Tim! I knew there was a catch to this post. I could never see you really buying all this you were saying especially since it all made sense to me. LOL! I think you are right about many of these topics hitting on our values. When you think about it, don’t you really think it is cruel to keep someone on death row for 10 years?

    Gotta go, Glen Beck is on. ;-)

  • Christian

    Hello Tim! You’re asking if I saw through you when you were arguing for the death penalty, and yes, I did. I started scrolling through instead of reading after 7-8 paragraphs, thinking “okay, where’s the catch”.

    What I really, but really didn’t see coming, though, was you flipping this on a dime and turning it into a *really* great post on values. Kudos to you. I was thinking at one point while reading the “death penalty section” that maybe this was a guest post from Fake Tim Brownson, a bit like Fake Steve Jobs. :-)

    In retrospect though, I should have suspected you would lead into values territory with this. Because what made me see through the first half of your post is precisely that it really didn’t match up with what I knew (from reading your blog at least) about your values. I mean, a guy leaving a high-flying sales job to become a life coach, suddenly making a mostly *economic* argument for the death penalty? And a guy who’s in the business of helping people change suddenly making generalizations about how criminals can’t be reformed. Doesn’t sound all that credible when phrased plainly like this, does it? :-) I mean, at the very least, a life coach who doesn’t believe people can change is like… say, a surgeon who faints at the sight of blood: really, but *really* in the wrong line of work. :-)