The 75-year sentence handed down to convicted cop killer Justin Bourque has reignited the debate over the death penalty in Canada. Some are satisfied with what effectively will be a life sentence without parole for Mr. Bourque. Others think it's not enough and would like to see him executed.
Faced with almost daily reports of hideous murders, it's only natural for us to wonder if the perpetrators of such crimes deserve to live. And when some on the right of the political spectrum call for the re-implementation of the death penalty, it easily strikes a chord in many of us who want to rid the world of those who would commit such heinous acts.
But is bringing back the death penalty the answer? If we look to the United States, the answer is probably no. American studies have shown that the death penalty neither deters people from committing murder nor does it have an effect on recidivism rates. Those same studies have shown that the death penalty is disproportionately imposed on blacks and the poor.
But there's an even more compelling argument against capital punishment, an argument that should appeal to liberals and conservatives alike. According to one American commentator, the costs involved in executing a convicted murderer are several times higher than those incurred in imprisoning him for life. Such a finding seems surprising until you realize that someone sentenced to death in the U.S. typically languishes for years on death row while waiting for countless motions, appeals and clemency requests to wend their way through the courts. And there's no reason to think that the Canadian experience would be any different.
So what's the solution? The civilized answer would seem to be that the taking of a human life under any circumstance is inhumane and that imprisonment for life is the preferred option. Such an approach also protects the occasional victims of the justice system like Donald Marshall, David Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin who, when discovered to be wrongly convicted, can at least be released from prison. Finally, eliminating capital punishment would appear to be the wiser economic choice as well.
But there are individuals who do deserve the death penalty -- those who have no regard for the lives of others and are immune to any attempts at rehabilitation. If such a person commits cold-blooded murder, serves his time in prison and is released, there's a good chance that he will kill again. Society should not and cannot tolerate such an unrepentant killer since he has effectively forfeited his right to be a part of humanity.
The issue then becomes how do we distinguish between murderers who can be rehabilitated and those who won't or can't? Simple. Let them decide the issue themselves. If an individual is convicted of first-degree murder, serves his prison time, is released and commits first-degree murder again, he should face the death penalty. That's not to say he must be executed; discretion should be left with the judiciary. But in most instances, such a person should be put to death.
Such a proposal would be very limited in application. It would only come into play where an individual has been twice convicted of first-degree murder and only then if the judge hearing the case agrees. It would not apply where either conviction was for second-degree murder or manslaughter; it would only be used against incorrigible, cold-blooded killers. In other words, the death penalty would only be imposed in that rare situation where most of us would be able to say that the murderer is so beyond redemption that we could pull the switch ourselves.
In the case of Justin Borque, the imposition of a lifetime sentence with no chance of parole seems to be, in the words of the Eighth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, cruel and unusual punishment. Mr. Borque should have his chance at redemption with the caveat that death awaits him if he should ever kill again.
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