What would you expect a warden from death row to look like?
He was not the man I expected. Soft-spoken, yet strong and confident, Dr. Allen Ault shared with us his thoughts on the death penalty. His beliefs are grounded in research, experience, education, and personal convictions. Ault was the keynote speaker November 10 at the 2012 Abolition Conference sponsored by the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Now the Dean of the College of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University, Ault has served as the commissioner of corrections in Georgia, MIssissippi, and Colorado, as well as the Chief for the National Institute of Corrections. A licensed psychologist, he also worked as the warden of prisons that had a death row, and so oversaw the execution of many inmates.
“When you’re the commissioner of corrections, a lot of people give you advice,” he said, specifically advice about the death penalty. He then briefly addressed the most popular arguments for the death penalty, and why each argument fails.
1. It’s a detrement?
Punishment only deters if it’s sure and certain to happen every time, and it happens quickly after the behavior. The average wait on death row is 16 years, and there is no consistency in the sentencing. In fact, countries without the death penalty have seen a decrease in the murder rate.
2. It’s cost effective?
It’s up to 20 times more expensive than life in prison. In the time he was there, Colorado spent $5 billion to execute 19 people. The problem, he said, “Representatives have not been renowned for using research to make decisions.”
3. Reserved for the most egregious, horrific crimes?
In a study in Conecticut, there was no marked difference in egregiousness of the crimes between thoe on death row and those serving a life sentence. It depends more on the prosecutor, the jury, and the judge. Only for the guilty? In the last decade, 135 people on death row have been exonerated because of advancement in DNA testing.
Several studies show that a black person has a higher chance of receiving the death penalty than a white person convicted of the same crime.
So why not the death penalty? He calls it state sanctioned premeditated murder,
“If you care about human life, you care about more than just the fetus, you care about all human life.” What does the death penalty do to those charged with carrying it out, and what does it do to us as a society? Ault shared his personal experience of carrying out the death penalty, “After my 4th, I realized I wasn’t seeking help and was in very bad shape psychologically. After the 5th, I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t rationalize it anymore. Even after I couldn’t reember their names, I could see their faces…I’m not advocating against the death penalty because you should feel bad for me, but I wanted you to know.”
There are plenty who don’t feel the way he does, who would be happy to execute. In fact, he said that many do volunteer, not necessarily connected with an individual case, but who like the idea of executing someone. This is something Ault would never let happen. “Lots of sadists volunteer, but I’ve always believed that if there’s dignity in life, those who do it [the execution] ought to honor life.”
In other words, we should not feed into others’ thirst for destroying life. The abolition of the death penalty has been a long hard battle, with probably many more decades to go in this country. Ault ended by giving encouragement to those activists:
“Most of the time you fail, but sometimes you win. I hope you don’t give up.”