Thursday, January 18, 2007

In Defense of the Death Penalty

The execution of Saddam Hussein and two of his former henchmen has brought to the fore the issue of the death penalty. Over at tHiNkeR's rOoM, M has passionately argued that corporal punishment not only serves no purpose, but reduces society to the level of the criminals it is executing. Confronted with arguments for the deterrent value of the death penalty, M rails against the injustice of punishing people for crimes they re yet to commit.

On this issue, I would respectfully (and with a measure of trepidation, given his satirical abilities) disagree with him. Let us consider his statement that killing inmates reduces us to their level. If this argument were to be taken to its logical conclusion, then all forms of sanction would be declared immoral as all involve the denial of some fundamental right (life, liberty and property) which the criminal has previously denied to his victims. Prison terms, fines and community service require that we curtail the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms. Surely, abolishing all forms of punishment would be unlikely to deliver a society safe from crime. Secondly, to state that we cannot demand an-eye-for-an-eye recompense is to put the criminal himself in the position of determining what can or cannot be done to him. Since we do not wish to be like thieves, then society cannot take for itself a thief's hard earned property through a system of fines. The very act of thieving would thus deprive society of resort to this kind of punishment and kidnapping would automatically outlaw jail sentences. The criminals would be the new legislators.

M's objection to the deterrent value of capital punishment is similarly flawed. All form of punishment is geared to achieving three goals: compensation, rehabilitation and deterrence. We jail thieves so as:
1) to get some sort of compensatory justice in that they got what was coming to them;
2) to attempt within the prison system, to rehabilitate them by showing them the error of their ways and hopefully giving them a socially acceptable alternative course of action; and
3) to deter him and other would-be criminals by promising similar treatment (in the famous words of Vioja Mahakamani, ili iwe funzo kwa wengine wenye tabia kama hiyo).

The deterrence value of punishment (capital or otherwise) is an important safeguard for society. And it does involve an element of (to paraphrase M) punishing someone for sins both he and others are yet to commit. However, by engaging in criminal activity, one does forfeit one's rights and society can then rightfully proceed to impose sanction.

To my mind, the death penalty is only acceptable if it achieves deterrence. Compensatory justice is too much like revenge to suit my taste and it is obvious that no rehabilitation (at least in this world) is offered by the gallows. If, however, executing criminals saves the life of innocents by deterring murders etc. then I think the immoral position would be to spare them (the criminals). The question thus becomes: Does capital punishment deter murder? Empirical evidence would suggest that it does. Countries that are not shy about executions such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and China have dramatically low incidences of crime. As J. Edgar Hoover once put it, swift and sure punishment is the best way to deter crime. Imagine if everyone who committed murder instantaneously dropped down dead himself. It would then be safe to assume that very few murders would be committed. Since this does not happen, then we need to do the next best thing: quickly put to death anyone duly convicted of the crime.

Some raise objections around the fallibility of our criminal justice systems and the irreversibility of death. The fear here is that we are bound to execute a few innocents. Again these objections dissolve when applied to other forms of punishment. If we insisted on an absolute measure of guilt (as opposed to the "beyond reasonable doubt" standard), then we would have no criminal justice system. And all punishments are inherently irreversible anyway. You cannot give back the years and opportunities that are denied someone who is wrongfully jailed or fined.


3N said...

In my earlier days of formal education I did an extensive research on this topic...the statements below apply to the US.

"Of the 500 prisoners executed between 1977 and 1998, 81.8 percent were convicted of murdering a white person, even though blacks and whites are the victims of homicide in almost equal numbers nationwide.

The landmark 1990 study of death sentencing patterns in Georgia by Professor David Baldus found that the odds of a death sentence were four times higher for cases with white victims than for cases with black victims. And, the odds of a death sentence in cases in which blacks killed whites were as much as 11 times higher than capital murder cases involving a black victim by a white person."

It is no secret that minorities and to a greater extent the poor are more likely to be convicted to die than the haves in society.

This alone is enough to warrant a halt to capital punishment unless society can guarantee a near perfect justice system.

Gathara said...

Nothing in what you have said above constitutes a repudiation of the efficacy of capital punishment. You are confusing the death penalty with its application. What you should be advocating for is a fairer application of the law. It is also no secret that minorities are more likely to be jailed than the haves but I do not see you advocating for the scrapping of the prison system.