Capital punishments are government sanctioned punishments in which the person is put to death. This punishment is often referred to as the death penalty and the sentencing is referred to as the death sentence. Crimes which elicit the death penalty are normally serious crimes such as murder, rape, child rape, treasonous offences and war crimes. Currently in the world there are 56 countries with the death penalty, 106 countries that have completely abolished it for all crimes, eight that have abolished it for ordinary crimes but have certain exceptions for war crimes and finally 28 that are abolitionist in practice, meaning that they no longer give sentences involving capital punishment, but there are no laws against it. Worldwide, there were 26,604 prisoners on death row at the end of 2019. The first country to abolish the death penalty was Venezuela in 1863, and the UK abolished the death penalty in 1998, the 70th country to do so. This was only for treason, and in fact the death penalty had been removed in practice back in 1969. However, a 2010 poll suggests that over 70% of UK citizens would support the reintroduction of the death penalty for certain murders including the killing of children and policemen. The European Union prohibits capital punishment in Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Now that the UK has left the European Union, they could reintroduce the death penalty. Although it is still frowned upon by the United Nations and the Council of Europe – both of which have non-binding declarations against capital punishment. Although the UK has signed the non-mandatory Council of Europe legislation and the European Convention of Human Rights, both of which prohibit the death penalty. Regardless, there are calls to reinstitute it in the UK. In June 2013, there was a bill that was introduced into the House of Commons to reintroduce capital punishment. The bill has since been retracted and will not progress further. More recently, the issue has been brought to prominence as Secretary of State for the Home Department, Priti Patel, has previously supported the reintroduction.
Why should we bring back the death penalty?
The death penalty seems extreme, but it must be remembered that it would be only used in extreme situations and for the worst offenders – for paedophiles and serial killers. This could act as a deterrent for potential offenders. Isaac Ehrlich, an American academic, carried out a study that suggested that for every murderer put to death, seven murders were prevented. If this happened in the UK, it could prevent over 600 murders a year. If the death of one murderer can save the lives of 7 other people, as well as punishing the murderer for his own crime, the death penalty seems worth it. Some oppose the death penalty by arguing that the purpose of the justice system is rehabilitation and reform. By killing the prisoners, some say that the justice system is failing in its responsibility to reform prisoners. However, in the UK, 40% of prisoners reoffend in their first year after release and 75% after 9 years. In other countries such as the USA, this is no better, despite having capital punishment, with 75% reoffending after only 5 years. Almost 20% of murders committed in 2019, in England and Wales, were committed by former inmates on parole. If the death penalty had been in place for murder, there might be 114 people alive today who sadly are not, as they were killed by people on parole. Since the justice system is so obviously failing in its role as a reforming institution, the time has come, some say, to protect the public from these killers and rapists. However, there are other countries that take different approaches, Sweden for example, has a recidivism rate of 40% compared to the 75% of the USA and the UK. However, Sweden pays $91,000 per year, per prisoner, whereas the UK spends less than half that, roughly $44,672. This would cost the UK an extra 3.7 billion a year with the current prison population. But can you put a price on life?
Why should capital punishment stay abolished?
If prisoners on parole are committing murder, surely the solution is simple – remove or reduce parole. While some say this would decrease incentive for reform, if this was only done for the most serious crimes like murder and rape, it could increase safety for the general population and remove the need for the death penalty. Life without parole is seen as being preferable to the death penalty, to many critics of capital punishment. One of the many reasons for this is that the death penalty is sometimes given to people who are innocent. The irrevocable nature of capital punishment goes against due process as it forever removes the opportunity for a prisoner to benefit from new evidence or new laws that might warrant the reversal of a conviction. Over 1,500 people have been executed in the US since 1976. In that period almost 200 additional people have been sentenced to death but had their conviction overturned, sometimes minutes before their execution. The number of people who have been sentenced to death while being innocent could be even higher, but once the sentence is carried out, the investigation stops so we may never know how many people have been wrongfully executed. Another reason that capital punishment is argued to be unjust, is that the death penalty is not indiscriminate. Studies show you are more likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white person than a black person, and are more likely to be sentenced to death if you are black than if you are white. Despite black people making up only around 13% of the United States population, they represent 37% of the prison population and 42% of the death row population. In 93% of the cases where a prisoner was executed for an interracial murder, the defendant was black and the victim white. As well as this, there are surveys that show that capital punishment has little to no effect on crime rates.
Capital punishment is a highly contentious issue but due to international regulations, it is unlikely the UK will be bringing it back anytime soon.
- Rebecca Cafe, Does the public want the death penalty brought back?, BBC, August 2011
- Geo Ilyin, 5 Reasons some people think the world needs the death penalty, Amnesty International, June 2019
- Sam Truelove, Why we should consider bringing back the death penalty, MyLondon, July 2019