The intense coverage last week of the tragic execution of Troy Davis highlights once again how far apart European and American values on crime and punishment have moved. Apart from the grave concerns about the safety of his conviction and the real possibility that an innocent man was being killed by the State, the barbaric cycle of death-row reprieves which ultimately led up to his death was horrific to witness. This process of perpetual threats of execution points to the irreconcilable tension between a judicial system based on the concept of reasonable doubt which is also committed to imposing the ultimate punishment. Troy’s case also shows once again the wisdom of the European Court of Human Rights in the Soering judgment back in 1989, where it found the death-row process itself (quite apart from the death penalty issue) to constitute torture.
At the moment, there is a lot for Europeans to be self-critical about in terms of how we run our societies – but the strong consensus against the death penalty which culminated in universal abolition across Europe is one of the great human rights advances of recent decades. Except for the occasional ranting of the Daily Mail in Britain, advocates for the death penalty in Europe are now an exotic and declining breed. As with issues such as gun regulation, a chasm has opened up between attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic.
In that context, it’s worth remembering the similarly huge gulf in prison policy that has existed until recently between the US and most of Europe. US prison policy is a social disaster on an unprecedented scale which is now profoundly affecting the financial capacity of some States to function normally. As with the death penalty, there is now a movement in many States away from the punitive and destructive past with death penalty bans and prison reduction strategies emerging across the country.
One of the main reasons is the different attitudes we have to prisons as a social or as a commercial enterprise. Recent evidence now suggests that the for-profit nature of private American prisons has played a part in the prison boom of the 1990s.
Given all of the above, it begs the question why some Irish and British journalists and politicians still so regularly turn to the US as a law and order utopia to be mimicked in areas such as sentencing and prison management. Especially now that many US states are beginning to realise the error of their ways.