Saturday, December 10, 2005

Clemency for the Exceptional case

I look at it from the economist's point of view. One of the things we should take into account is the effect of relative incentives on people's behavior. I don't know a lot of details about Stan Tookie Williams, but it is apparent that he stands out as someone who has turned himself around while in jail awaiting the death penalty. If we want to encourage good behavior on death row, then clemency for the best behaved is one of the few carrots we have to offer. If Williams isn't a candidate for clemency on the basis of behavior, the only avenue out for others on death row is to be found innocent or to find a loophole like an incompetent attorney. Some inmates can hold onto one of those hopes, but others can't. If there's no decent hope to avoid the death penalty, then there's no reason for them not to try to cause as much havoc as possible while they wait. That seems like the wrong incentive.

Just to be clear, I think capital punishment is justified for some crimes. (And murder during a robbery certainly qualifies.) In most cases, in the current setting, it appears to me to be too expensive to be worth pursuing: we spend so much money taking their cases through the legal obstacle course to get final approval that we'd be better off in most cases just giving them 15 life sentences. But Williams' case has made it through the gauntlet, and that obstacle course has been passed.

The questions the Governor should ask are whether clemency should ever be granted for good behavior, and whether Stan Tookie Williams' turnaround isn't one of the best examples available.

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