Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Trouble with Closure

Capital Defense Weekly quotes from an interesting new paper by law professor Susan Bandes titled "Victims, Closure, and the Sociology of Emotion." The idea of "closure" for a victim's family -- the idea that the death penalty can provide it, and the idea that it is possible at all -- is very much discussed and challenged among our members, and Susan Bandes's thoughts are useful and interesting.

Here's an excerpt from the paper:

The theme of closure has reframed the entire death penalty debate. For many years, support for the death penalty was premised on its deterrent function. More recently, the weight of empirical evidence has rendered the deterrence rationale increasingly tenuous. Retribution, the major alternative rationale, has always been a harder sell. Retribution at one time sounded too close to revenge, and made people uncomfortable.

The language of healing and closure has provided a way to soften the retribution rationale. If the death penalty can help survivors heal, then retribution can be viewed as therapy rather than bloodlust. Thus the notion of closure provides a rationale for our continuing commitment to the capital system. At the same time, the perceived requisites of closure have fueled changes in the structure of capital system, including the victim impact statement, truncated appeals, and broadened categories of death eligibility. In this way the feedback loop perpetuates itself. We have promised survivors that the system can give them closure, and the institution of capital punishment now needs to exist to give survivors the closure we’ve promised them.

Unfortunately, this therapeutic promise has little to do with the actual workings of our capital system: it’s a poster child for the dangers of engrafting the private language of emotion onto a complex, hierarchical and coercive governmental entity.

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