Is capital punishment an effective crime-fighting tool in Jamaica?

David Mullings

Sunday, August 22, 2010

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LAST week I wrote about the coming divestments of government entities and there is no doubt that Jamaica's high crime rate hurts foreign direct investment and will impact the pool of potential investors in the entities to be divested.

The QR code included in this article points to a video posted on YouTube by none other than Al Jazeera that speaks to crime in Jamaica -- not good for our already badly stained international image. We must tackle crime and be seen to be serious about it, otherwise more videos like these will be shown to the world.

A recent article in the Jamaica Observer indicated that a number of Jamaicans in the Northeast area of the USA (certainly not representative of the entire US by any stretch) support the resumption of hanging in Jamaica.

As usual, the arguments in support of capital punishment are based entirely on emotional reasons rather than the result of critical thinking and research. Using Twitter and Facebook I posted the title of my column as a question and as expected, I received the same kind of responses.

1. "IF ppl learn that the THREAT is real; compliance tends to be higher."

This was a response from a high school classmate of mine that I respect greatly. The fundamental flaw in this reasoning is easy to identify: It actually does not matter if hanging resumes tomorrow in Jamaica because our criminal justice system is in such a bad shape that the odds of actually being caught, tried and then convicted are minuscule.

Based on a 2010 report that I read, Jamaican police only make arrests in 34 per cent of homicide cases per year and shockingly, a mere five per cent of homicide cases end with conviction of perpetrators!

Would you be afraid of being punished if you knew the odds of being caught were so low?

Is there any real surprise then that vigilante justice and extrajudicial killings are so high in Jamaica?

2. "If the perpetrators of murders continue to feel they will not face a similar fate as their victims they will continue to destroy the country."

This was a response carried in the Observer article from someone in Brooklyn. Aside from the fact that I have already shown that the odds of the perpetrator ever being convicted are absurdly low in Jamaica, it seems that few people have ever tried to understand how criminals think.

Criminals in Jamaica obviously know that the odds of being killed by the police are very high and that has never deterred them. In fact, the extrajudicial killings increase while the murder rate increases.

If killing criminals was an effective crime-fighting tool, why then has the murder rate not trended down as the police kill more people?

That answer again is simple: Many criminals are not afraid of dying.

I remember watching a video of an interview with a young man who claimed to be a criminal in one of Jamaica's inner cities. The interviewer asked him if he was not afraid to die and he casually answered by saying that the odds of young men in the ghetto living past 25 are already low, so he might as well enjoy life while he is young.

When you grow up with nothing, it should not be surprising when you want to live life in the fast lane. US-based Jamaicans tend to have opinions based on what they think of the US criminal justice system, not what they have researched about the system nor what actually exists on the ground in Jamaica.

The US system is not what Jamaica needs to follow because it has proven to be a failure when compared to other countries around the world in addressing crime. It seems that some resident Jamaicans also look to the USA as a model since there is a belief in some corners that building more prisons like the USA is actually one part of the solution to curtail crime.

The same week that topic appeared in the papers, The Economist carried a major article titled 'Crime and Punishment in America: Rough Justice' with the subject being "America locks up too many people, some for acts that should not even be criminal". Published on July 22nd, the article pointed out that in the USA, one in every 100 adults is behind bars, a rate that is five times that of Britain, nine times that of Germany and 12 times that of Japan.

Some people will say that those are different cultures with different values so the comparisons of their incarcerated and crime rates are not fair. Even if we agree to ignore that and only look at the results of the policy in the USA itself, we arrive at a conclusion that supporters usually ignore: "America's violent-crime rate is higher than it was 40 years ago."

If people can say that building more prisons will curtail crime, even when facts point to no such correlation, what do the facts about capital punishment as a crime deterrent say? Since Jamaicans seem to like the USA as a model for dealing with crime, I point my readers to the New York Times article from September 22, 2000 titled 'States With No Death Penalty Share Lower Homicide Rates'.

The article pointed out some very interesting findings that all Jamaicans debating the return of capital punishment must take into consideration:

"10 of the 12 states without capital punishment have homicide rates below the national average, Federal Bureau of Investigation data shows, while half the states with the death penalty have homicide rates above the national average."

"In a state-by-state analysis, The Times found that during the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty has been 48 per cent to 101 per cent higher than in states without the death penalty."

It is not surprising that Steven Messner, a criminologist at the State University of New York at Albany, is quoted in the Times article as saying: "Whatever the factors are that affect change in homicide rates, they don't seem to operate differently based on the presence or absence of the death penalty in a state."

Jamaicans may overwhelmingly support the return of hanging, just like how the majority of Americans support the death penalty, but Warren Buffett was right when he said that "a public opinion poll is no substitute for thought". I would add "and research" to that quote because critical thinking is something we learn in school and should apply to every idea, especially ones that could affect the future of a country.

Jamaica already kills criminals and that has not reduced the crime rate. It is time that we focus first on CATCHING criminals and then CONVICTING them before we worry about killing even more.

As long as our criminal justice system is as broken as it is, no one will be afraid of a death penalty because they know that they won't even be caught and convicted. The recent State of Emergency is a perfect example of detaining over 4,000 people and ending with an abysmal number of cases actually brought against anyone.

I urge all Jamaicans to focus on identifying real solutions to crime and encouraging our Government to take real steps, including finally dealing with the poor relationship between the police and citizens, the lack of witnesses in cases, conditions in which our lawyers and judges have to work and most importantly, the high levels of corruption at all levels of the society.

It is high time we start using logic and critical thinking to guide national development, instead of opinion polls and emotions.

Readers may go to to download the free application on their smartphone to scan the QR code above.

You can also follow David Mullings on twitter at  




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