An eye for an eye?

An eye for an eye?


Tuesday, May 03, 2016

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The majority of nations that execute citizens do so based upon the premise that death is the most powerful deterrent, deserved retribution, and that no mercy should be shown to the merciless. It is against this background that advocates of capital punishment argue that murder is the most callous of all crimes and only the strongest punishment available will serve as a deterrent.

They further assert that if murderers are put to death, potential murderers will contemplate their predisposition to engage in violence and criminality based on the trepidation of likewise losing their life. Therefore, with our nation’s growing reputation as one of the most barbarous places on the planet, it is understandable that Jamaicans at home and in the diaspora will always muse about the resumption of hanging and the effect it may have on the heartless among us.

So last week when the Hon Robert Montague, minister of national security, signalled his intention to explore the possibility of reopening the gallows for business, it was music to the ears of many. However, both the minister and the public must be made aware that it is not the severity of the punishment that deters crime; it is the certainty of being apprehended. Yes, the fear of being caught is an immensely more powerful deterrent than the punishment itself. It is therefore imperative that the police and the criminal justice system in general buttress the perception that criminals will be caught quickly and by any means necessary.

The most important aim of punishment is considered to be deterrence and this is based on the theoretical premise that less crime within the society makes it a better place to live for all its citizens. Interestingly, after many decades of empirical research across the world, the validity of the death penalty as a deterrent cannot be unequivocally substantiated.

The first of the studies that examined the deterrent effect of the death penalty was Thorsten Sellin’s (1959) pioneering research which concluded that the death penalty had no distinguishable effect on America’s homicide rates. Sellin’s research reviewed data on the murder in each state and found that the states without the death penalty had lower homicide rates. In fact, for many years an abundance of research proved that the occurrence of homicides is generally higher in states and countries with the death penalty. To further review the validity of Sellin’s findings one needs to look at the state of Texas, the mecca of executions in America.

Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Report (2013) showed that Texas had the highest number of executions since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstituted in the USA, and as of July 24, 2014, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reports that Texas performed 515 executions during the period. This was 404 more executions than Oklahoma, which has the second highest execution rate.

Yet, Texas recorded a higher homicide rate than 27 other states in the year 2012. Texas’s murder rate was higher than 12 of the 18 states which do not have the death penalty. Additionally, the FBI (2013) data show that the state with the highest overall murder rate in 2012 was Louisiana, which has the death penalty. Even some unrepentant proponents of the death penalty conceded that in 87 per cent of states, capital punishment had no effect on the homicide rate or actually caused murders to increase. The vast majority of criminologists worldwide consistently cull the credibility of the death penalty’s deterrent effect and found that it was no more significant a preventive sanction than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Most Jamaican citizens will argue that we should not, under any circumstances, use taxpayers’ money to ‘feed’ the murderous monsters. However, a little known fact is that it costs the taxpayers significantly more from conviction to execution within a 15-year period than to feed a prisoner for 30 years. The reality is that adjudicating death penalty cases takes more time and resources compared to murder cases where the death penalty sentence is not pursued as an option. These cases are more costly because there are procedural safeguards in place to ensure the sentence is just and free from error.

One measure of death-penalty costs was reflected in the time spent on costly appeals. Then, when all is said and done, much of the bill for the various appeals is paid by taxpayers. What we need is comprehensive reform of the criminal justice system and not archaic rhetoric, because it is clear that beyond its retributive value, resuming the death penalty will not be beneficial to Jamaica and will in no way, shape or form quench our bloodthirstiness.


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