Each time I read a post beneath an article about a tragic and grizzly crime calling for the return of the death penalty, I have to wonder why the commentator thinks the death penalty will either have prevented the tragedy or make it better.
I don’t deny seeing the attractiveness of the comeuppance that dishing out the death penalty, but other than providing a sense of relief to the general public as a catharsis for their rage I fail to see any other benefit. To the family whose child was killed it certainly isn’t going to bring any comfort.
Still it appears that many people really do believe the death penalty will somehow cut down on the number of violent crimes in our society. I agree that obviously a potential repeat offender would not have the opportunity to commit any more crimes if he were dead but this argument is problematic for a couple of reasons:
1. - Someone given a death sentence, in the absence of the death sentence, would otherwise be given life in prison thus effectively nullifying their ability to repeat an offence or enact a new crime
2. - Many people who commit violent crimes are never sentenced to life in prison but are instead given shorter sentences ranging from a few years to a few decades. A judge who is unwilling to hand down a sentence of life in prison is most certainly not going to proffer the death penalty. Thus the death penalty becomes a special punishment reserved for a very small number of offenders and is therefore not a real concern to any criminal.
3. - If we put people to death because they might commit a similar offence in future, we are essentially punishing them for crimes they didn’t perpetrate. Why not give the death penalty to petty thieves then because they may become violent criminals in future.
Okay I realize that last point is a slippery slope argument that is a bit ridiculous, but dealing death because of things that haven’t yet come to pass is ridiculous. You may as well put people to death for thinking about killing someone. Our prisons would be a lot fuller than they are now.
Also, there is no evidence that the death penalty has any effect on crime. Countries like Norway, Canada, Denmark, Sweden and the UK have abolished the death penalty yet have some of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world. On the other hand a country like the USA which still has the death penalty in some states has a very high rate of violent crime.
It is also reasonable to assume that there is no correlation between the amount of crime being committed and the punishment for said crimes. No shoplifter wants to go to jail, but the knowledge that getting caught could lead to incarceration doesn’t stop them leaving the store with knickers stuffed to bursting with all sorts of knick knacks. Likewise a murderer is not very likely to be deterred by the idea that if he gets caught he might get the death penalty.
Murder is usually enacted out of a sense of desperation or a compulsion such as that experienced by serial killers. If you’re compelled to kill, the fear that you might get caught and then put to death will have been suppressed or marginalised by your desire by the time you act on your compulsion. If you kill out a sense of desperation, a moment of insanity, self-preservation or just plain hatred your sense of reason may have been compromised by your other emotions. Either way, by the time an act of violence occurs, the person perpetrating the act is no longer in any position to be worried about the consequences.
The main reason I oppose the death penalty though is that the law is not infallible and very often, far too often, the wrong person is incarcerated. In the US it is estimated that as many as 5000 to 10000 people are wrongly convicted each year. The UK now has 30 innocence projects to help those wrongly convicted. If the US and the UK can’t get it right, what hope does South Africa with its increasingly corrupt police force have?
With dockets that seem to vanish into the netherworld in the back of filing cabinets, police who randomly stop and bribe innocent drivers, citizens being harassed at will, strained courts, overflowing prisons and a population applying increasing pressure I struggle to see a legal system that isn’t going to make mistakes. Certainly the police are under pressure to produce arrests. We have seen with a few cases in over the last few years that easiest target usually becomes suspect number one.
It’s easy to ignore the fact that innocent people could be targeted as suspects by the police especially when we put ourselves at ease by believing that the police wouldn’t arrest someone for murder if they weren’t guilty of something. But who will be suspect number one if you come home one night to find your wife or girlfriend dead? Ask Fred.
Yes I know that most murders are committed by someone known to the victim, but that doesn’t change the fact that a police force under pressure is less concerned with the truth and more interested in scoring a conviction.
The death penalty is not the answer to solving South Africa’s crime problem. Crime is a symptom and the death penalty would do nothing to make it go away.