Nothing shocks the conscience more than a crime committed against a child by an adult. Children are vulnerable, and they can’t fight back. They are trusting, and they lack the experience to see an attack coming.

Children who survive sex crimes report a lifetime of pain. Those who don’t survive are robbed of any life at all.

Given that, we might be expected to support a bill proposed by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, which would bring back the option of the death penalty for perpetrators of child murders that involve sexual molestation. But we do not support the measure.

Diamond’s bill, while well-intentioned, would do nothing to prevent child murder. But it could distract lawmakers from developing programs that might. Diamond is right to look for ways to protect children from abuse, but this bill isn’t it.

NOT A DETERRENT

The main reason that this bill should fail is that the death penalty does not work as a deterrent. While executing a given individual would certainly prevent that person from committing another crime, there is no evidence that it stops anyone else.

The criminal justice system is not perfect, and not every criminal gets caught. If Diamond’s bill passed, it would be up to a judge to decide whether to impose a death sentence for a child sex murder, so it would not presumably be applied in every case

Even if a child molester/murderer were thinking rationally, the uncertain prospect of punishment would do little to dissuade him. But why should we assume he was thinking rationally?

We don’t fully understand why some people feel compelled to victimize children, but it’s safe to say that it is not a rational decision. That’s neither an excuse for these crimes nor an argument for leniency – these offenders should be pursued, caught and punished – but we should not expect that a perpetrator will be discouraged by a possible penalty, no matter harsh.

The death penalty remains popular with the public because it sounds like a just response – an eye for an eye – but even there it falls short. A state execution could never be as brutal as the crimes that Diamond’s bill envisions. We cannot make an offender or his family suffer as much as he’s made his victim or her family suffer. We can’t stop brutality by practicing it ourselves.

In Maine, the ultimate punishment is life in prison with no possibility of parole. That’s the appropriate limit of state power.

It protects society from the offender and permanently takes away his freedom, which has always been what Americans value most.

PROTECT CHILDREN

While other states are questioning the moral and practical value of capital punishment, Maine does not need to reopen a door that was closed over a century ago.

Yes, look for ways to protect children, but let’s not confuse our efforts with a pointless argument about what to do with the most terrible offenders after it’s too late.

The Legislature should see this bill for what it is – a well-intentioned distraction – and quickly get back to the real business of governing our state.