It’s the start of another legislative session, and once again the death penalty is on the table. There’s the same talk about repealing it this year as last, but maybe this time the votes will be there. Now, as then, the repeal effort will likely be driven by the visceral, gut-wrenching horror people feel about the Petit murders, and because of that it’s hard to know what the chances are for repeal.
Why do we cling to the death penalty? Lots of people in Connecticut feel that we should have it, and did even before the Petit murders happened, but why? Is it a deterrent? Justice for victims and their families? Revenge? Something else? Whether the death penalty is actually a deterrent to crime has been a subject of intense debate and scholarly analysis for decades, but there’s never been a real consensus on the issue. Victims’ families are divided, as well; some feel it’s justice, some don’t. That doesn’t leave us with a lot to go on. Some states have abandoned the death penalty altogether, while others continue to execute their citizens through doubt and criticism alike. Connecticut isn’t part of either of those two categories yet, we do sentence people to death here but rarely execute them. Still, I can’t find the meaning it it, and maybe the legislature is finally about to agree.
In less sensational but far more important criminal justice news this week, a report released by the Office of Policy and Management’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division showed depressingly high recidivism rates for males released from prison since 2005: “By the 22nd month following their 2005 releases,” the report states, “50 percent of all members of either group [sex offenders and non-sex offenders] had been readmitted to prison for at least one night.” Nearly 80 percent were re-arrested following release, and just over half returned to prison with a new sentence. Interestingly, the report highlighted sex offender recidivism rates, and showed that “…sexual recidivism rates for the 746 sex offenders released in 2005 are much lower than what many in the public have been led to expect or believe.” The report adds that “…these low re-offense rates appear to contradict conventional wisdom that sex offenders have very high sexual re-offense rates,” before challenging public agencies to determine how dangerous specific offenders are to the public.
All of this suggests a criminal justice system that is in desperate need of thoughtful scrutiny from lawmakers and state agencies. If the recidivism rates are so high, what does that say about the purpose of the system? Are we rehabilitating offenders, or simply punishing them? Does a prison sentence create conditions that lead to more prison sentences? How do we really address this vicious cycle that leads so many released offenders back to prison? This isn’t just a problem in Connecticut, re-arrest rates are this high all over the country. A national conversation about the purpose and effectiveness of our vast, expensive criminal justice and corrections system, which has given our country the highest incarceration rate in the world, is overdue.
Sadly, this kind of attention is probably not forthcoming. The specific data the report presents for sex offenders directly challenges widely-held perceptions about an offender group that has been the target of plenty of political scrutiny and posturing. But politics makes it unlikely that a serious re-evaluation of sentencing and treatment for the different types of offenders within this group will happen any time soon; no politician wants to be seen as soft on sex crime. As for other offenders? Their plight, and its ties to intersections of race, class and economics, isn’t even on our national or state radar.
Which brings us back to the death penalty. Here is a sentence that is rarely assigned and even more rarely carried out in Connecticut, but that’s where the heads of the legislature are at this year. Should the death penalty be repealed? Yes, if only so we can move on to other, better matters. When it comes to criminal justice, we focus on the lurid and the sensational while ignoring the mundane but far more vital questions about the way our system works, and if, in fact, it’s really working at all.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics and an author. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.