Editor’s note: Marvin Olasky’s cover story in the current issue of WORLD magazine focuses on what the Bible says about the death penalty and what life is like on death row. In a series of 10 columns here on wng.org (posted Oct. 7–18), Marvin addresses public policy issues involving deterrence, discrimination, and arbitrariness in capital punishment.
The spectrum of views on rightful punishment for murder goes from execution on one end to prison time until a convict is “rehabilitated” or “is no longer a threat to society” on the other. But those concepts emphasize the consciousness of the prisoner, and that’s always a speculative process. Beyond that, they fall far short of the biblical standard of recompense (in Genesis 9) or “life for life” (later in the Pentateuch).
I suggest in my cover story that giving up a life does not necessarily mean execution, and that life without parole (LWOP) satisfies justice requirements. Surveys have shown many Americans sharing that view: Opposition to the death penalty sharply increases when a pollster offers LWOP as an alternative. Thirty-five states currently have the death penalty, and all 35 now provide for a sentence of life in prison without any possibility of parole. Texas adopted that sentencing option in 2005.
It’s possible that liberal groups, if capital punishment were taken off the table, would move on to argue that LWOP is also inhumane, but the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty notes, “The state does indeed have an obligation to protect society from violent people. … LWOP enables the state to lock up violent offenders for the rest of their lives.” It’s more important to think of the prisoners’ opportunity to make their lives count for something beyond destruction. I met in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola prisoners who knew they would spend their lives there and had reconciled themselves to that as they gained faith in Christ. They had become a great blessing to younger prisoners there, and said they would not be dedicating themselves to others if they still were striving to get out themselves.
One argument against eliminating the death penalty is that its existence does allow district attorneys to conclude open-and-shut cases more quickly by offering to drop the capital punishment option if defendants will accept LWOP. But defendants who want a full trial should be able to pursue that without the pressure to give it up.
Listen to Marvin Olasky discuss the death penalty on The World and Everything in It: