State, Be Not Proud: A Retributivist Defense of the Commutation of Death Row and the Abolition of the Death Penalty


In the aftermath of Governor Ryan's decision last year to commute the sentences of each offender on Illinois' death row, various scholars have claimed that Ryan’s action was a “grave injustice” and, from a retributivist perspective, “an unmitigated moral disaster.” This Article contests that position, showing not only why a commutation of death row is permitted under principles of retributive justice, but also why it might be required. When properly understood, retributive justice, in its commitment to moral accountability and equal liberty, hinges on modesty and dignity in modes of punishment. In this vein, retributivism opposes the apparently ineluctable slide towards ever-harsher punishments in the name of justice. While the thesis I defend is sited in the particular context of the death penalty, the implications reach more broadly, as the argument offered here signals that a commitment to retributivism in no way impedes the realization of humane institutions of criminal justice and a rejection of the benighted, misbegotten, and often brutal status quo we shamefully permit to endure.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure

Date of this Version

September 2004