Writer: Rena Rawanchaikul
Editor: Tonwaan Apiratikiat
Graphic Designer: Yann-Ling, Pat Sevikul
Artist: Pat Sevikul
The death penalty, or capital punishment, is a form of punishment that has, as of late, increasingly come under scrutiny and opposition around the world. Whilst it has been criminalised in more than 70% of the world’s nations, around 60% of the world’s population live in nations where it is still legal and in use. Some countries even execute those under 18, or mentally disabled patients. This topic has spurred much debate, with many, often in LEDCs, arguing in favour of its use, whereas others who are exposed to more statistical evidence or the nuances of the debate seek its abolition.
A reason for why popular sentiment largely upholds capital punishment in nations where it is still in use is its strong emotional pull, largely fueled by a desire for retribution. It seems like justice in its true, raw form, like that of lex talionis (an eye for an eye), especially in cases of particularly violent crime. Further, this irreversible deprivation of life seems, ostensibly, to be a strong deterrent to crime, a key aim of punishment. After all, when potential criminals are about to commit a crime, they may think of their possible death, and thus stop themselves.
However, there is no empirical evidence that shows that capital punishment is more effective at deterring crime than imprisonment, as seen by countless research findings in the field of social sciences. In fact, the ACLU states that ‘people commit murders largely in the heat of passion, under the influence of substances, or because they are mentally ill… the few murders who plan their crimes beforehand… intend to avoid punishment altogether by not getting caught.’ Capital punishment takes an extremely reductive perspective on crime, confronting its effects rather than addressing its root causes. It does not seek to discuss the problem of criminality in society by engaging in nuanced discussions on socio-economic conditions, for instance.
Furthermore, there is the complication of those wrongfully imprisoned, especially in the cases of quasi or undemocratic countries where judicial processes are questionable and there is undue political influence. Iran, for example, places a high degree of power or authority in the hands of the state, where bias is common. Those that the rulers have personal issues with can be sentenced to death, and the death penalty can be used primarily as a means of state control. Countries where this occurs are likely to value human rights comparatively less in the first place. For other countries, normally stable democracies, enshrine human rights more strongly. Capital punishment too only serves to reinforce this, as well as grant possibilities for the abuse of state power. It cultivates a culture that implicitly tolerates and upholds unnecessarily violent practices, which, in turn, creates an environment that continues to fuel violent crime. As Amnesty International states, ‘The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it.’
In order to also further the processes of democratisation around the world, the sense of retribution that largely fuels calls for capital punishment must also be confronted. A way of doing this is by emphasising the sanctity of human life and the effectiveness of rehabilitation, which has been shown to be up to 48% in a number of studies conducted by a group of sociologists on 200 prisons around the world. Indeed, the recidivism rate (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend once out of prison) of Norway’s Halden prison, the world’s ‘most humane prison’, where rehabilitation is emphasised, is 20%. This is the lowest in the world, compared to the US’ rate of 60%. Of course, where perpetrators who are unable to respond to verbal instructions or are incapable of understanding social norms to the extent of uncontrolled violence are concerned, the traditional means of punishment, i.e. imprisonment, could be considered for the benefit of society as a whole. That said, it should not be the first port of call - given the evidence, rehabilitation should be given primacy for the benefit of all, and as a sign of the value of human rights in the nation.
Additionally, it is paramount to note that capital punishment is one of, if not the most, extreme form of punishment. There is no return from death. If we seek to limit spending on prisons and keep them small, then we should encourage the learning of lessons, where possible, in taking a practical stance on punishment, so that recidivism rates can be as low as possible. Where is the possibility of learning lessons with capital punishment? There is no chance for improvement, for a normal return to society. The wrongdoer’s right to life and liberty has been revoked permanently. Thus, not only is a key aim of punishment left unfulfilled (deterrence to crime), but this is done in an extreme and irreversible way.
Thus, it is perhaps time that nations turn away from the death penalty. A state that values human rights highly is a state that works best for all of us. After all, when there are possibilities of injustice within the realm of the law, it is best if this cruel method of ‘preventing crime’ is not used at all. The statistical evidence further support how popular arguments in favour of capital punishment are rooted in fallacies and fickle desire for revenge, and how its use fuels a culture which implicitly tolerates and upholds violent practises in the first place. It is time to start challenging the prevailing narratives in nations that uphold the death penalty. With broad public awareness campaigns, the public can begin to understand the nuances that underlie the debate on the death penalty, and to look past its cursory promise of retribution, for the benefit of us all.
Bregman, R., 2020. Humankind. 1st ed. London: Bloomsbury.