In one word, “Justice.”

In three words: “They deserve it.”

Some people kill so heinously that death and only death constitutes society’s dignified response. A few years ago, under court order, I documented life inside every maximum security prison in Illinois. What I found appalled me. As my crime and punishment memoir, The Death of Punishment, recounts, convicted murderers serving life sentences inside Illinois maximum security prisons watch soap operas and sports, after shopping for goodies and snacks to munch on. These callous killers play sports for hours at a time. Their prison library even contains a “true crime” section. With the best jobs and hustles inside prisons, often those who deserve it most suffer least, while those who deserve it least suffer most.

OPINION

Why is that? The prisoners and those who guard them spoke with one voice: “What a guy did outside is none of our business. How he behaves inside is our only concern.”

Illinois’ Department of Corrections self-declared mission further confirms it: “Protect the public . . through incarceration and supervision which securely segregates offenders from society, assures offenders of their constitutional rights and maintains programs to enhance the success of offenders’ reentry into society.” No mention of punishment. No mention of justice. Ironically and perversely, inside prison as presently administered, it’s nobody’s job to punish.

We retributivists feel certain that those who rape and murder children, serial killers, terrorists, mass murderers etc — the worst of the worst— all other things equal, should be punished and their punishment should fit their crimes. Justice demands it.

If Illinois does reinstitute the death penalty, it should morally refine it to reserve it only for the worst of the worst, and only based upon evidence that leaves a nearly unanimous jury with no residual or lingering doubt as to guilt, and convinces them to a moral certainty that the convicted murderer deserves to die.

But whether or not Illinois reinstates the death penalty, and especially if it does not, it should administer prison life to really help rehabilitate those it might release, while it truly punishes — yes, punishes with life — those who deserve to die.

Robert Blecker, a criminal law professor at New York Law School, is the author of The Death of Punishment: Searching for Justice Among the Worst of the Worst.

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