60 Second Summary: Death and Rehabilitation

Articles you need to know about, summarized in 60 seconds (or less).

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.

  • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com Wesley

    My father was a prison chaplain for 30+ years and a supporter of Prison Fellowship. Along with Chuck Colson, he would often say to us kids, “prison doesn’t change [reform] people, only Jesus does.” Meghan Ryan’s article is commendable yet i fear her assertion,”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.” is too broad and holds too closely to a man-centered idea of reform. I’m not saying we don’t do what we can w/i the penal system but – aside from the change only the Holy Spirit can bring – we need to be realistic about how much change to expect in the end.

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell


    I have a strong interest in this discussion from the broader perspective of the prison crisis in our nation. But to the matter of capital punishment, the line that jumped out at me was reference to “an essential component of the human dignity to which every death row inmate is constitutionally entitled.” I am appreciative for the way you ended the article because needed focus should be given to the pre-mosaic ordinance of Genesis 9:6.

    Early in human history, God required capital punishment for murderers. He said, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God he made man.” (Genesis 9:6). The phrase “sheds man’s blood” is used euphemistically for two different kinds of death. The first is an act of murder; the second, a just-punishment of the murderer (this is what military and government are called to do).

    Occasionally I am asked how I reconcile my pro-life position with my support of capital punishment. I answer by showing how both positions (pro-life and pro-capital punishment) endorse the sanctity of life by opposing deliberate acts of homicide. The human dignity of the victim of murder is the basis for capital punishment of the murderer. Scripture emphasizes that life is precious (has dignity) because humans are made in God’s image.

    Sadly, the death penalty is needed to protect civilized society. Elimination of it could lead barbaric anarchy. Those who willfully take the life of another must face the punishment of losing their own lives. Some killing is unjust and we call it “murder.” Other killing is just and this we might call “self-defense” in some cases, and “just punishment” in others.

    If interested, I answer standard objections to capital punishment here: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/category/capital-punishment/

  • http://highplainsparson.wordpress.com Riley

    Is there an assertion being made that inmates on death row are not permitted to worship? I’d like to know more about this, if true.

    • Joe Carter

      From Ryan’s article, it does appear that prisoners on death row have limited access to religious resources. While it is almost certain that they are provided with a minimum level of access (e.g., can have a religious text, can talk to a chaplain on occasion), I think Ryan’s point is that if rehabilitation of character were a priority, we’d do more to help these men and woman examine their consciences in a way that would lead to repentance. What that would require, though, she doesn’t say.

  • Adam Hawkins

    I really appreciate this article. I have worked as a public defender and with the innocence project, and I am encouraged to see this article. Prisoners need Christ and are as capable of passivley recieving God’s grace as I am. The issues surrounding our punishment system in this country are myriad and complex. It is definitely something we as Christians should think more about.

  • Melody

    If they are permitted limited resources to hear God’s truth then wouldn’t that be enough for God to work on their hearts? Do they need us or do we need to feel better? I don’t mean that callously. I’m asking from the perspective of who does the actual saving. If we do need to feel better then the bigger question would be why.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey agrees with Saints Augustine and Aquinas, that executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer:

    “. . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy.” (p. 116). “A Bible Study”, within Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Romano Amerio, a faithful Catholic Vatican insider, scholar, professor at the Academy of Lugano, consultant to the Preparatory Commission of Vatican II, and a peritus (expert theologian) at the Council.

    “The most irreligious aspect of this argument against capital punishment is that it denies its expiatory value which, from a religious point of view, is of the highest importance because it can include a final consent to give up the greatest of all worldly goods.”

    “This fits exactly with St. Thomas’s opinion that as well as canceling out any debt that the criminal owes to civil society, capital punishment can cancel all punishment due in the life to come. His thought is . . . Summa, ‘Even death inflicted as a punishment for crimes takes away the whole punishment due for those crimes in the next life, or a least part of that punishment, according to the quantities of guilt, resignation and contrition; but a natural death does not.’ ”

    “The moral importance of wanting to make expiation also explains the indefatigable efforts of the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist Beheaded, the members of which used to accompany men to their deaths, all the while suggesting, begging and providing help to get them to repent and accept their deaths, so ensuring that they would die in the grace of God, as the saying went.”

    Some opposing capital punishment “. . . go on to assert that a life should not be ended because that would remove the possibility of making expiation, is to ignore the great truth that capital punishment is itself expiatory. In a humanistic religion expiation would of course be primarily the converting of a man to other men. On that view, time is needed to effect a reformation, and the time available should not be shortened. In God’s religion, on the other hand, expiation is primarily a recognition of the divine majesty and lordship, which can be and should be recognized at every moment, in accordance with the principle of the concentration of one’s moral life.”

    Some death penalty opponents “deny the expiatory value of death; death which has the highest expiatory value possible among natural things, precisely because life is the highest good among the relative goods of this world; and it is by consenting to sacrifice that life, that the fullest expiation can be made. And again, the expiation that the innocent Christ made for the sins of mankind was itself effected through his being condemned to death.”

    “Amerio on capital punishment “, Chapter XXVI, 187. The death penalty, from the book Iota Unum, May 25, 2007 ,