Taking Responsibility for Crime

Willie Smith III was executed today in Alabama for the brutal and capricious murder of a woman he had kidnapped from an ATM.  The usual critics of the death penalty have not been silent in their opposition to Smith’s execution.  

There is no doubt about Smith’s guilt, and the evidence allows of no plea of extenuating circumstances:  After robbing her bank account he killed the victim “execution style.”  The best argument they can muster is Smith’s low IQ (in the low 70’s), which is evidence of diminished responsibility.  How rational an argument is this?

I put little faith in any social statistics, but a conventional percentage assigned to Americans with an IQ below 80 is roughly 10, but subsaharan African and African American IQ levels have been analyzed by scholars, some of whom put the subsaharan mean at about 70.  Setting aside for the moment all questions of race and IQ and the dubious methods by which statistics are gathered and analyzed, one might be on safe ground in estimating that the more than 10% of the black male population in the US has an IQ below 80, and that those who are convicted of major felonies tend to be at the lower rather than higher end of the scale.  (The connection between crime and lower IQ scores is widely accepted.)

The argument would seem to be, then, that Americans of low intelligence should not pay the same penalties for their crimes, and that dangerous criminals, if they are sufficiently unintelligent, should be put in prisons where they will be able to kill guards and other prisoners.  The alternative—solitary confinement—is too expensive and would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.  

Let us say that for the sake of argument we agree with the not entirely novel proposition.  The lunatic who tried to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I was not put to death even by her despotic regime, and both British and American law, for well over a century, have recognized various types and degrees of insanity or diminished mental capacity as justification for not executing those who are guilty of capital crimes. 

A pragmatist might dismiss the Liberal argument as impractical.  The cost for keeping an average prisoner in Illinois’ correctional system is over $37,000 per annum, and the cost goes up for dangerous felons.  In other words, to provide for the needs of a convicted murderer, we are paying, every four years for a college student’s degree or for better health care for the poorer classes or for better maintenance of the environment.  A country that is on the verge of bankruptcy, as the USofA most certainly is, has to choose how to allocate its diminishing resources, and it is patently unfair to expect working taxpayers to continue to contribute more and more of their earnings to the support of those who prey upon them.

One way out of this trap would be to hold a referendum with an unsecret ballot and all those who opposed the death penalty would be taxed for the support of murderers.  They would also have to be made liable for any crimes or damages committed by their protégés in custody. 

There is an even simpler solution I once saw proposed, as a joke, in a newspaper comic strip.  One of the main human characters in Bloom County—a popular strip in the 1980s—is Steve Dallas, a criminal lawyer.  In one long sequence Steve is called upon to defend a little lady who is an ax murderer.  The lawyer naturally asks the judge for all sorts of indulgence, which the judge grants—by remanding her to the lawyer’s custody.  As he makes his ruling, the old lady splits the attorney’s bench with her ax. 


This principle of liability could and should be extended to judges and parole boards who turn loose killers, child molestors, and violent illegal aliens, such as the Congolese who raped a woman on a Pennsylvania train.  We’d also want to include school boards and superintendents whose policies and programs result in lower test scores and violent schoolrooms.  And what about presidents and their cabinet members who invent pretexts for immoral wars that cost trillions of dollars and thousands, even millions of lives?  Under such a system, General Powell would have spent his golden years trying to pay off his debt to the American people. 

Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

8 Responses

  1. theAlabamian says:

    Dr. Fleming
    I’m glad you wrote on this subject, also ties in really well with what you recently wrote on the death penalty and turning the other cheek. Here in Alabama they have been having issues with the prison system for years. There was a proposed super prison to be built close to where I reside but it looks like it has successfully been blocked due to investors pulling out, the people of the area did not want it here. Kay Ivey was making a horrible deal for Alabama taxpayers and helping her cronies. Of course they will still build somewhere.
    The issues with prison overcrowding, drugs, assaults, and corrupt prison guards, would not be solved with the super prison style complex but bring it closer to people who never wanted its problems and visitors. There is much more to be said about that but I have thought how to deal with the issues, and it seems that the so called war on drugs, the drug problem creates problems that our ancestors did not have to contend with and I’m not sure how to pull wisdom from them on dealing with the issue at the moment. The prison system costs Alabama too much and of course the state is not self sufficient, you know a far cry from what the Republic of Alabama was in 1861 and now it is just a dependent county of Washington D.C. Obviously the issue with immigrants (the Congolese man) is more clear cut, most should never even be here and they should be deported for lesser crimes so they can not possibly commit a worse one. I favor a moratorium on immigration. The issue of civil rights, and the horrible conditions for prisoners make me wonder if a man might experience such attrocities in the prison due to a lesser crime, and be totally destroyed as a person. So is the death penalty for drug lords, drug salesman part of the answer? Would legalization of drugs even help? The prisons themselves are producing destroyed people, worse criminals by keeping the most evil element alive to torment and create hell in the prison? Death penalty for sexual assault and drug use in the prison? I have been pondering this but I am not sure how to approach it. Certainly much less money must be spent on prisoners. I am new to trying to think on how to deal with this is my point. I’m not sure the State of Alabama or any other state can adequately deal with the issue for federal intervention in the name of civil rights, which the issue is obviously Alabama’s business and not Washington D.C.’s.

  2. Vince Cornell says:

    Sticking with Alabama, one rural county pinned all her economic hopes on getting a Federal Prison built. There was hope that it would bring in folks to work at the prison and would help bolster a local economy barely on life support. The hope was false – the prions guards mostly live over in Mississippi and just commute in to work, or are on rotation and don’t invest their money or their families in the community or the school system. So much for the false argument of prisons as being profitable businesses for anyone other than the big security firms running them.
    The fact that heretics like Helen Prejean are allowed to speak in public in the name of the Catholic Church is reason enough to want burnings at the stake to come back into fashion. Perhaps there will be room enough on the one stake to fit James Martin, S.J. – he’s a pretty slim fellow.
    The only thing that gives my vim and vigor on this topic pause is the sincere belief that the odds of me winding up within the prison systems in the near future seem to grow day-by-day. Whether for not taking the current vaccine mandate d’jour or for declining some future diktat or for laughing at something funny or for enjoying Mantan Moreland movies . . . regardless, I get the feeling I might wind up seeing this problem from the other side eventually. In which case, can we at least act now to get Cable TV outlawed from the prisons? Being incarcerated with the violent dregs of humanity is one thing, but to have to live out the rest of one’s days while also listening to 24 hour news networks or, shudder, “The View” is beyond inhumane.

  3. Michael Strenk says:

    Let’s extend Dr. Fleming’s proposed solutions to the advocates for unlimited third world immigration (or first world for that matter, although many of the worst pathologies are not significantly present in that population they are still taking jobs). Every immigrant must be assigned to a sponsor who will be responsible for feeding, housing and clothing both their wards and the Americans that they replace. They should also be responsible and share the punishment for any crimes committed by their wards up to and including the death penalty while also being responsible for making financial reparations to victims. When a ward is deported for bad behavior the sponsor should be banished to the ward’s country of origin along with any other wards that fail to find another sponsor.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    As MS may be aware, I have more than once proposed to restore a system by which immigrants were required to have sponsors who would he held accountable for their protegés’ crimes and for the expenses they imposed upon the taxpayers.

  5. Michael Strenk says:

    It is a poor teacher who never hears his own thoughts and ideas come back at him from his students. It is a reasonable supposition that I internalized this mode of thought on the topic from reading and listening to Dr. Fleming and his compatriots over about the past two and a half decades.

  6. James D. says:

    This is unfair. How would Catholic Charities find enough sponsors for all of the Muslims they import?

  7. Josh Doggrell says:


  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    In fact, it was in the context of the immigration question that I developed the line of reasoning. Of course, one may pick up a hint from one angle, and logically extend it to other cases. Indeed the strength, perhaps the truth of an argument can be discerned by its adoption and application by others.