Monday, April 11, 2011

The Death Penalty - a Proposed Alternative.

On Wednesday, March 9, 2011, at 1 p.m. Eastern Time, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed the Death Penalty Repeal bill into law, joining fifteen other states and the district of Columbia in not having the legal ability to execute heinous criminals.

This is one issue in which I have traditionally been squarely on the fence for most of my life, but I’m finally leaning towards abolishment.

The down side of the death penalty is the issue of innocence. Our criminal justice system is good, but not perfect. Not every defendant has the resources of OJ Simpson. Prosecutors have a political vested interest in securing convictions. A conviction means a case is closed, a crime is solved, the community is safer, justice is served, and most importantly the prosecutor is doing a good job and should be retained. This political environment has the potential to foster a climate where results count more than real justice, and an innocent man is sent to prison. Exoneration of convicts based on forensic DNA evidence demonstrates that this happens. That it happens even once is far too much. The cases in which a prisoner is released and cleared of charges get a lot of press. But you cannot release an innocent man who has been executed in accordance with the law!

Then there’s the issue of the cost. A death penalty conviction starts a process which is sufficiently drawn out that the convict stands a very good chance of dying of old age in prison before being executed. Appeals are expensive, time consuming and the justice system (i.e. John Q. Public) pays for the endless appeals and legal maneuverings of a convict who’s willing to grasp at every legal straw available to prolong his life.

On the flip side are the crimes in which the guilt of the accused is in no question, such as Jared Lee Loughner. There are crimes committed where the crime is so heinous, and the guilt of the accused is so well established, that one’s natural reaction is to kill the perp as quickly as possible. I don’t have a problem with this.

Many Christians base their objection on Biblical moral grounds, from the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus20:13, KJV). This is a misapprehension, based on a loose translation. The original Hebrew word used was רָצַח (ratsach), which more closely translates to “murder”. Indeed, the death penalty was a central tenet of ancient Hebrew justice. To say that the state cannot execute criminals based on biblical teachings is hypocrisy.

But from a purely philosophical standpoint, the idea that the State has the right -even the obligation -to execute its own citizens should disturb anyone, no matter what the crime of the citizen is.

Let’s think about the purpose of execution. From an emotional standpoint, execution is the ultimate revenge. You have harmed me beyond recompense and for that act you will pay with your life. Is it the role of the state to extract revenge? And what sort of revenge is it when it’s carried out sometimes decades after the crime, when the crime has become a distant memory and the general public doesn’t even remember the details of the crime? If it’s revenge we’re after, locking the condemned in a room with the victim’s family and a ready supply of baseball bats for 20 or 30 minutes seems more appropriate.

The death penalty isn’t an effective deterrent. People committing crimes do not consider the scope of punishments they may face for the crimes. The logical argument in favor of the death penalty is that the condemned is guilty of a crime so heinous that no punishment is adequate, that no rehabilitation is possible, and that the death penalty is an economic alternative to maintaining the condemned for life in prison. In effect, the condemned is too dangerous to release into society, and therefore it’s a preventive measure. The problem with this logic is that the cost to the state of executing a prisoner is often more than maintaining their life in prison.

But, states the death penalty advocate with a certain amount of justification, life in prison is an inadequate punishment for some egregious crimes, and represents leniency on the part of the state. Victims families will never reach closure knowing that the person who committed a heinous crime is drawing breath, warm and safe behind prison walls, getting three meals and a bed to sleep in every night, medical care, exercise, TV and access to prison occupation programs and “quality of life” perks. Can’t say I disagree. Some would argue that prison is a thoroughly unpleasant, stressful place, and that life in the joint is no bed of roses. I would contend that humans are sufficiently adaptable that they can adjust to almost anything, and a person facing life in prison can come to terms with it over time. Surviving the first few years will place the prisoner in a position in the social order of the prison that can be tolerated, at times even enjoyed.

I think there’s a middle road. Short of death, I propose there be a special classification of life imprisonment. Let’s call it “living death”. Upon conviction, you are condemned to die in prison. There is no possibility of parole. From the moment you begin serving your sentence, you will be considered dead for all intents and purposes. You will be declared legally dead for the purposes of settling your estate. You will have no contact with your family or loved ones. They might as well hold your funeral when you enter prison. Once the appeals process has run its course, you will have no further contact with legal representation. You will be allowed to access a minister of the religious denomination of your choice, but the minister will be chosen and trained by the department of corrections. Said ministers will not convey messages to and from outside your prison. You will have no access to any sort of media outside the prison, nor will you have any contact outside the prison. You will be housed alone in a 20x20 cell. Your meals will be provided to your cell with a 2000 calorie per day diet. You will keep your cell as clean and functional as you like – it’s your place to live for the rest of your life. If you destroy property, it will not be replaced. The “death row” block will be subject to periodic inspection to ensure that prisoners are not subjected to abuse beyond the scope of their incarceration. Prisoners will receive necessary medications and annual health checks, but no major medical intervention in the event of serious illness or conditions. The state has no interest in prolonging your life by artificial means. No one will be notified when you have lived out your natural life and died. You will be cremated on site.

This should satisfy the death penalty opponents who abhor the idea of killing a man, no matter the crime, and should satisfy the death penalty advocates by removing the criminal from society as effectively as execution and not providing him with a comfortable living or any sort of social support so desperately important for humans.

This is the harshest punishment I can imagine without becoming inhumane. The state has no interest in spending resources in making the life of the criminal miserable. Neither does the stat have an interest in making the life of the “death row” prisoner comfortable. The prisoner must be satisfied with the fact that the only reason we don’t kill him is he’s not worth the expense. And in the very unlikely event that it’s discovered that a prisoner was found to be wrongly convicted, we can always retrieve them from the abyss of the “death row” prison system and return him to freedom.

Friday, April 1, 2011

How the Pacific Northwest Should Prepare for the Cascadia Tsunami

In the wake of last months Tsunami disaster in Japan, people in the Pacific Northwest have a renewed interest in the possibility of a similar disaster happening here.  I mis-speak.  It is not a possibility of happening in the Northwest, it’s a certainty.  The only question is, when?

Sitting 90 miles of the coast of Oregon and Washington is the Cascadia subduction zone, where the Juan de Fuca plate dives under the North American plate.  This fault has a geologic history of producing megathrust earthquakes like clockwork, every 300-600 years.  The last such earthquake took place on January 26, 1700.  We have just entered the window of danger.

When Cascadia cuts loose again, residents and visitors along the coast will have at most 15 minutes to seek high ground before the first tsunami waves arrive.

Unlike Japan, there are no major metropolitan centers located on the coast of Washington and Oregon.  In most places the coastal range plunges steeply into the sea, limiting the amount of damage that a tsunami can do.  But there are low lying sea side communities.  The one that gets the most attention is usually the community of Seaside, on Cannon Beach.  This popular weekend destination for Portland inhabitants is fully aware that it’s in the crosshairs of Cascadia, and tsunami evacuation routes are very plainly marked.  Fortunately, most of Cannon beach is within a mile of high ground, and any healthy person should be able to make it to safety on foot.

Unfortunately, there are other, more vulnerable communities than Seaside.  In Washington, Long Beach, Westport and Ocean Shores are three communities which will be erased from the map by a tsunami.  These communities have no high ground in easy walking distance, and very limited routes of access and evacuation.  The loss of life in these communities could easily be as high as 90%. 

Studies are underway to engineer vertical evacuation routes.  The idea is to literally build emergency buildings high enough and robust enough to withstand a tsunami.  This idea is a fallacy and would be a stupendous waste of money and resources for very little benefit.  For one thing, there is no way to know if such a structure could actually stand up to a tsunami after having weathered a severe earthquake.  There is only so much that modeling can do to predict how a building will behave in such an event.  The other problem with this plan is one of sheer logistics.  How can you get everyone to reach said building, and inside to a safe level, in the limited amount of time available? 

Let’s look at facts:  When this happens, people are going to do stupid things.  Many people are going to try to evacuate by car.  This will cause tremendous traffic jams, and traffic will not move.  Many people will not know what to do.  There will be injured people unable to move, buried in collapsed houses.  Streets will be filled with refugees heading for high ground, but there will always be some idiot who lost a family member going the wrong way.

If you have a vertical evacuation facility, how many people know where it’s at?  It’s easy to get to high ground when hills are available – you just pick a direction and go as fast as you can.  But with everyone attempting to converge on a single building, there will be mobs as people fight to get in first.  The entrances will be jammed.  People are going to be trampled, and many will die waiting to get in when the first wave comes.

Without such a facility, people in communities with no high ground handy should grab hold of a loved one and make their peace with God, because they’re going to die.  With such a facility, there’s still a high probability they won’t be able to reach it, or having reached it, they won’t be able to get in because of the crowd.

There is a better solution.  Tsunami pods.

I envision a tsunami pod as similar to the lifeboat on an oil rig.  These lifeboats are self-contained.  You get in them; you strap in and release them.  They ride down rails and literally plunge into the sea, submerging completely.  They’re shaped so that the plunge will carry them underwater quite a distance before they pop back to the surface.

Now we don’t need anything that fancy for a tsunami pod.  What we need is something that will float, stay more or less upright, is watertight, submersible, and built strongly enough that it can withstand crush pressures caused when it’s swept up in a debris flow and pushed and battered along the path of the Tsunami.  It could be as small as a single person, or maybe even as large as a rail car – in fact, rail tanker cars may make a good hull for such a pod.  There should be restraints for occupants, because it’s going to be a rough ride. 

Working on a basic, simple design, these tsunami pods could be mass produced and distributed throughout population centers and at-risk tourist areas.  In the event of a major earthquake – and when Cascadia cuts loose, people on the coast will have no doubt in their mind – you make your way to the nearest tsunami pod and get in.  Everyone gets in and straps themselves in, and the last guy closes the hatch either when the pod is full or when the water starts to rise.

Notices in the pods will clearly instruct occupants to stay in the pod for at least 6 hours.  There will be multiple waves, and the first one may not be the biggest.  After 6 hours, all pods will activate an emergency homing beacon, so that search and rescue teams can find them.  Some pods will be buried in debris.  Others will be washed out to sea and be floating off the coast.  But the beauty of this system is that most people in these pods will be bruised, battered, but alive!  You could build a huge number of these pods for the price of a single vertical evacuation facility. 

In terms of investment for life saved, this is a far better way to prepare for the coming tsunami.

The next Mega Earthquake

Living in the Pacific Northwest, it’s impossible for me not to witness the destruction wrought by the Indian Ocean Earthquake and the more recent Japanese Earthquake and not think about the monster lurking just off my own coast. 

Subduction zone earthquakes represent a tremendous threat.  They tend to be very powerful, and since all subduction zones are undersea, they almost invariably spawn tremendous tsunamis.  Most of the subduction zones are around the Pacific ring of fire, as the continental plates slowly press the Pacific Ocean into a smaller and smaller area. 

One of the geologically most violent subduction zone faults is the Cascadia fault, where the diminutive Juan de Fuca plate dives under the North American plate 90 miles off the shore of Oregon and Washington.  The geologic record of this fault shows that it ruptures every 300 to 600 years.  We know that the last time this fault ruptured was January 26, 1700.  East coast Japanese cities record a tsunami on that date, which was not accompanied by an earthquake.  Analysis of trees killed by coastal subsidence confirms that the last growing season they had was 1699.

Inhabitants of the Northwest are blithely complacent of this threat for the most part, because the earliest settlements by Europeans was a scant two hundred years ago, when Jacob Astor founded Astoria in 1811.

In the years since the Indian Ocean Mega thrust quake, the Discovery channel has generated some significant ratings by inflating the threat that such a quake poses to the Pacific Northwest.  The premise is that the Cascadia fault will generate a 9.0 quake and that the fault will rupture all along its thousand mile length.  They then extrapolate what a 9.0 Earthquake would do to the local cities in the Northwest, along what we locals recognize as the I-5 corridor.  The video footage was shocking, buildings flattened, people running for their lives, infrastructure destroyed.

Consequently, a lot of angst has built up as residents of Portland and the Seattle metro area all the way to Vancouver BC contemplate their beautiful cities ruined by a 9.0 earthquake. Sadly, none of it has anything to do with reality.

This always seemed to ring kind of hollow to me.  I was in the big Philippine earthquake in 1990, when an 7.8 near Cabanatuan cut loose and nearly destroyed Baguio City.  I was less than 100 miles from the epicenter, and what we experienced was about a 4.5 to a 5.0 – strong, but no real damage.  I’ve said for a long time that the 9.0 off the coast of Oregon would not trash Portland, and I’ve received a lot of derision for my position.  I guess people enjoy being scared.  So I did some research, and the numbers are on my side.

The formula that relates Earthquake magnitude to ground motion is a =1300*(e0.67*M)*(D+25)-1.6 where a is acceleration in cm/sec2, M is the earthquake magnitude and D is the distance in kilometers.  For those of you wanting to follow along with your own spreadsheets, in excel this is:


Where B2 is the cell with Magnitude and C2 is the cell with distance.

We can then convert this acceleration to g units, so we can relate it to the Mercalli earthquake scale.  We do this by dividing the acceleration by 980.

Now, if we plot this in magnitude vs distance we get a graph that looks like this:

Note that the Y axis is plotted logarithmically.  This makes sense, because the intensity falls off exponentially as a function of distance.  I imposed the Mercalli definition points over this.  By the Mercalli scale, you don’t start seeing substantial damage until it reaches VII or VIII.  If we examine the 9.0 curve, we see that the maximum distance for any sort of substantial damage is about 120 km, which would be well short of the I-5 corridor.  At this distance, the effect would be the same as standing at the epicenter of a 5.0 scale earthquake.  Note, however, that this chart doesn’t take into consideration geologic conductivity or soil composition.  Liquefaction of loose soils may extend the radius of destruction beyond what is described here.

We’re so used to news stories that deal with the damage that can be done by a 6.0 Earthquake.  It is kind of scary, but we have to remember that in the news industry, bad news is good news.  A 6.0 earthquake plays well when you can get footage of houses collapsed and thrown off their foundations, bridges destroyed, etc.  What the news doesn’t show you is that 5 miles away, they put everything back on the shelves of the stores and life continued more or less as usual.

Standing in downtown Portland when the Cascadia fault ruptures will be about like being 10 miles away from the epicenter of a 5.0 Earthquake.  It will wake you up, but you won’t have to dodge falling buildings.

The real threat of Cascadia is the tsunami it will generate.  That will devastate the Coast, but fortunately there are no metropolitan centers in the extreme danger zone for such an event.  There are ways to prepare for disaster on the coast to save lives.