This is going to sound terrible, and I apologize in advance for everyone who is going to be upset by it. But I have a proposal to replace the death penalty in our prisons - suicide.
I started to think about this the other day when a jury voted in favor of execution of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
We've all become familiar with Tsarnaev - the cherubic-faced young man who looks like he should be playing the French horn in some college band or working at an Abercrombe and Fitch store in the mall. There is nothing innocent in the blank dark eyes that stare back from his photograph, though, or in the pain and suffering he caused so many people.
He will likely end up at the U.S. Bureau of Prison's death row in Terra Haute, Indiana, where he will no doubt embark on an appeals process that could cost the public millions of dollars and last for years if not decades before he is finally killed by lethal injection.
Iowa does not have the death penalty. My one experience with it as a journalist came in the person of Robert E. Williams, a monster of a human being, if one can use that term, who embarked on a three-state murder and rape spree in 1977, which ended with the killing of innocent victim Virgina Rowe at a Sioux Rapids home.
There was never any doubt about William's guilt. Fingerprints and other evidence was plentiful, and he admitted to killing three women and trying to murder a fourth. He was as guilty as the day is long, as close to an open-and-shut case as you will find.
When I arrived here in the 1980s, Williams was still on death row in prison, where he had supposedly discovered religion, spurring some to demonstrate against putting him to death. With various appeals, delays and protests, it took more than 20 years - 20! - and an untold fortune in taxpayer money to keep, care for and defend the man. I can only imagine what horrors this process caused for the families of his victims. Imagine how long a case without a confession could tie up the courts.
Nor is the prospect of supporting heartless, violent criminals in prison for their lifetimes - often including huge public defender and health care bills - necessarily appealing. Tsarnaev is just 21 - he could sit in a cell for 50 or 60 years if the death penalty were not applied... with the ability to inspire other twisted people to other violent acts.
Many people have never been comfortable with the concept of a death penalty. For them, society killing out of revenge isn't much better than the crime of the murderers themselves.
No matter how you feel about that, more practically, it seems the death penalty simply doesn't work very well. The process of years that it tends to take is slow, expensive and frustrating, contributing to huge backlogs in the justice system and dragging victims' loved ones through emotional hell again and again.
I'm aware of how horrible this sounds, but the more I think about it, the more I think those adults in prison with potential lifetime sentences without chance of parole should be given the option of a humane suicide.
We are taught that it is the right thing to do to put down an animal when it is no longer possible for it to live a rich life, but we deny people the right of a dignified choice. We have come to respect the decision of people with painful, permanent health issues if they choose to end their struggle by refusing medical intervention. Should those with no possibility of freedom be different?
By no mean would we ever want to encourage people to end their lives for any reason, but I think some of the stigma has worn off for those who have made the painful decision.
I know this would never be an easy thing - even if a life prisoner chose to end their life, families and others who disagree would no doubt petition. Some would call it cruel - though I'm not sure the prospect of being confined to a small cage until the day you die is one that would be much better. Only the person, I suppose, could say.
The U.S. has by far the highest rate of incarceration in the world. About 4.5 percent of the entire population is sitting in prison right now, and that is likely to keep increasing. That's 2.3 million inmates, at an average public cost of over $24,000 per person per year, plus over $5 billion a year in new prison construction to house the ever-growing population.
Not to sound crass, but long lifetimes in prison are destroying state and federal budgets, and it the burden gets greater by the year.
If a humane suicide program were allowed, I don't think it would ever involve high numbers; nor should it.
But compared to the prospects of society killing people for their crimes in archaic devices like electric chairs, giving them the right to choose a painless injection seems as though it would be a quicker, less contentious, more peaceful and perhaps much less costly prospect.
Eventually we will have to face the consequences of our exploding imprisonment rate. We simply won't be able to keep everybody, forever.
It would be a horrible policy to have to make, but I can't help but to think that having their deaths be in the killer's own hands would be preferably to forcing society to continually make the soul-baring decisions on who should live and who should die.
Anyone who thinks violence against innocent people is an answer to anything need only look at the young Boston bomber, or Robert Williams. There is no glory in their situations now, is there?