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The Article: Death and Rehabilitation

The Source: SMU Dedman School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper

The Author: Meghan J. Ryan, Assistant Professor of Law, Southern Methodist University - Dedman School of Law


The Gist: While rehabilitation in prison was once understood as referring to an offender's character transformation, references to rehabilitation now often focus on offenders' direct impacts on society. This has the effect of distracting from the humanness of the worst offenders and consequently not providing them with true opportunities to transform their characters---a denial which challenges the Eighth Amendment's focus on respecting the human dignity of the condemned.

The Excerpt:

Rehabilitation as character change animates the understanding of capital punishment in early America. It is also the species of rehabilitation that creates media frenzies around "transformed" death row inmates such as the killer Paul Crump, pickax murderer Karla Faye Tucker, and Crips co-founder Stanley "Tookie" Williams III. Further, character-change rehabilitation is at the root of various legal doctrines relying on death's relevance to rehabilitation. Modern understandings of rehabilitation, though, focus more on an offender's direct effects on society. This understanding of rehabilitation is, as courts and scholars have concluded, irrelevant to the death penalty, because executed individuals clearly cannot reintegrate into society and thus their effects on society are more indirect.

Additionally, recognizing rehabilitation's relevance to capital punishment through its role in reforming offenders' characters raises the question of whether a real opportunity for character transformation is an essential component of the human dignity to which every death row inmate is constitutionally entitled. The Court has repeatedly stated that the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment is rooted in the idea that everyone---even a death row inmate---is entitled to human dignity. . . . To have a true opportunity to reform, however, death row offenders should be provided with greater rehabilitative resources, such as the opportunities to worship and to improve their educations. This Article attacks the long-held position that death is irrelevant to rehabilitation and asserts that our legal tradition is based on the notion that facing death spurs rehabilitation.


The Bottom Line: When Anthony Burgess' classic novel A Clockwork Orange was first published in the U.S., the editors cut the redeeming final chapter so that the tale would end on a darker note, with Alex succumbing to his violent, reckless nature---an ending which the publisher insisted would be 'more realistic' and appealing to an American audience. (The film version by Stanly Kubrick was also based on this bowdlerized version.)*

Without the final chapter, though, audiences are left without a consistent reason for opposing Alex's "rehabilitation." According to the common understanding of rehabilitation, an offender-centric view that focuses on societal reintegration, behavior-modification treatment should be perfectly acceptable since it provides a means to restore a criminal to society. So why does the story strike us as a violation of human dignity?

Although Professor Ryan does not mention Burgess's book (or Kubrick's movie) in her article, she reintroduces us to a view of rehabilitation that has been all but forgotten yet corresponds with the Christian view of dignity. We tend to think of rehabilitation as a means of restoring a criminal to society. And modern defenders of capital punishment focus almost exclusively on the deterrent or retributive values of the death penalty. But as Ryan explains, when the death penalty was first imposed in this country, it was meant to encourage offenders' repentance. "Rehabilitation was one of the primary reasons that capital punishment was imposed in early America," notes Ryan, "and there are several stories of brutal murderers being rehabilitated on death row."

Whatever our views on capital punishment, we as Christians should consider why we've neglected this aspect of repentance and conversion---helping the prisoner restore the broken relationship with their Creator, not just with humankind. While we have an interest in a criminal's return to society, we should be even more concerned with the state of their soul.

(Article via: Mirror of Justice)

*If you're unfamiliar with either the book or the movie (both are disturbing, but I only recommend the former), the Wikipedia entry provides a useful summary.

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Joe Carter


Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

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