The death penalty, also referred to as capital punishment, is the highly controversial centre of debate for the POI editors this week.
Until its abolition in 1965, the death penalty was used in the UK for murder, having been in place since ancient times, the primary form of execution was by hanging. This was until the Labour government at the time introduced the 1965 Murder Act which suspended capital punishment in the country.
Since then, no British government has sought the reintroduction of the penalty. This is largely due to concerns from human rights campaigners, challenging whether Britain can be regarded as a democracy if they match murder with murder, rather than seeking retribution and rehabilitation for criminals. Also, whether the biblical idea of an ‘eye for an eye’ still stands.
Britain’s opposition to the death penalty is not echoed by the US. Instead, 29 states currently have the death penalty in place. With many seeing it as a fairer punishment to serious crimes, and removing dangerous criminals that could pose a threat to wider society.
However, despite being the law in Britain, opposition to the death penalty is not shared by all MPs, conservative MP John Hayes spoke in the Commons and urged the government to take into account the “potential merits” of the death penalty should it be reintroduced in the UK.
Topics like the death penalty always have been and always will be controversial and divide opinion. Thus providing the POI editors an exciting opportunity for debate, who offer views from all across the political spectrum.
Written by POI correspondent Emer Kelly
We can’t risk the lives of the innocent through a system of parole – CONSERVATIVE article
Since 1969 the prison population in England and Wales has almost tripled. We have serious overcrowding, underspending, and reoffending issues in the UK. There have been urgent notifications issued regarding 6 jails (including Exeter) which call to make drastic improvements. In short, our jail system is failing. We are spending £37,543 on average per prisoner each year, and 46% of those prisoners will re-offend within the same year of release. There clearly needs to be a change, and the death penalty might just offer the solution.
It is undeniable that we need to harshen the consequences for serious offenders. In England and Wales, the average life sentence before being paroled is 15 – 20 years, and 30 years for more serious murders. In the UK we are giving many serious offenders the chance to be released early, giving them the opportunity to commit more crimes. Given the high reoffending rate they are extremely likely to do so. The annual reoffending statistics published by the MoJ shows that 501 offences that have been classed in the ‘most serious’ categories were committed by those leaving jail in the first three months of 2009. These offences include 501 new cases of murder, rape and child sexual assault. Criminals do not fear their punishment enough, and Britain has fallen into a dangerous mindset that people who commit these hideous offences can be rehabilitated, and this has lead to the murder and assault of many more victims.
The Death Penalty is expensive. It incurs significant financial complications including legal expenses, jury selection and incarceration costs, as well as the expensive lethal injection drug (costing around $16,500 in Virginia). In the US today, incarceration for life costs considerably less than execution. However, if we were able to devise an approach to lower these costs the Death Penalty would offer a viable and financially efficient solution to our failing jail system.
Firstly, we would need to clearly establish precisely what crimes would result in the Death Penalty. Murders of a certain nature, terrorists, child abusers for example. We also need to establish a threshold of evidence that needs to be passed, in other words, in order to avoid the issue of killing the innocent, the death penalty should only apply to those who are indisputably guilty beyond question.
The biggest issue surrounding the death penalty remains the moral debate. Interestingly, evidence shows that the public is more supportive of capital punishment than the government suggests. In a YouGov poll it was found that 74% of people supported the death penalty for murder in extreme circumstances, and 62% supported it for child murder. So there is still significant support for the death penalty.
I believe that the reintroduction of the death penalty could be considered as a financially efficient and morally defensible solution to the breakdown of our current punishment system. Instead of making punishments easier, we should be making them harsher. We are continuing to shorten prison sentences in Britain, and are abolishing sentences under a year long. As a result, we see increasing incidents of violence and reoffending. Our current legal system is broken, creating a dangerous society, and a viable alternative is clearly needed. A new death penalty system, carefully designed to address the inevitable economic and moral issues, would have significant public support in offering the harshest punishment for the most heinous crimes.
Written By Conservative editor Eleanor Roberts
point of information
Contradictions on Contradictions – a Labour Response
I can see and understand the issues that Miss Roberts has raised with our current prison system. It is true, they are underfunded and overcrowded. However, maybe instead of killing some prisoners to make more space we should fund them some more or put less people in them. There are levers available to us other than reintroducing the death penalty.
Miss Roberts has identified over crowding as a problem that needs to be corrected yet strangely calls for longer, harsher prison sentences and is against the idea of abolishing single year prison sentences. If overcrowding was truly her concern, surely she would be for putting less people in prison and the rehabilitation of those in prison so they can be reformed and paroled out of the system. A movement towards a prison system based on rehabilitation rather than punishment would help decrease prison populations and reduce recidivism, all without the possibility of killing innocents.
Now I know the Conservative editor has said that we would not kill innocents, that we would have higher thresholds in order to be absolutely sure of a criminal’s guilt. I am sure that the jurors of previous death penalty cases were indisputably sure of the defendant’s guilt. Yet as I have said in my article, people can be wrong by no fault of their own, but due to the flaws in human memory and eye witness accounts. You can never be 100% sure. A call for the reintroduction of the death penalty is a call for the death of the innocent.
Written by Labour editor Daniel Orchard
Correction: The death penalty certainty is not cost efficient – a Liberal response
Miss Roberts presents a nicely written article here, but the content would be laughable if it was not for the heinous human rights infringements that are argued for.
The argument for the harshening of consequences seems to be – on the surface – sound. But, ‘the data show that the scientific community … believe that the empirical research has revealed the deterrence hypothesis for a myth’, let this not be another instance of people believing that their indoctrination is worth more than scientists in-depth research; (*cough* climate change *cough*). There is not time to present all the figures, but in terms of the death penalty being a deterrent of crime, I hope we can agree that it is not any more effective than long-term prison. I wonder has Miss Roberts ever thought outside of the imprisonment sphere, after all, there is something going wrong in the education and welfare system that leads people to crime, and something wrong in the criminal system that leads to re-offence. The Death Penalty may seem like a simple solution, mainly because of the simplistic (yet, invalid) argument that comes along with it, but in this case simplicity certainly does not take the win!
Onto the next point, financially efficiency. I would like to see what would happen if we follow through this chain of argument to its bitter end. What Miss Roberts suggests is that the death penalty should be reintroduced because we have overcrowded prisons, it costs money to keep people in prison, so we should just make the death penalty more readily introduced, and suddenly the population of prisons goes down! Eureka! In this case, why not just perform mass executions? After all, education is expensive, policing is expensive, the NHS is expensive, so if we just reduce the population, costs will go down, we can pay less tax… I hope you can sense the irony.
I implore Ms Roberts to revise her views on this topic, she can then join the rest of us in looking at how we can reduce crime in a compassionate and effective way.
Written by Liberal editor Olivia Margaroli
Execution is permanent, evidence is not – liberal article
As a Liberal, this is a debate which should not even be given the light of day. The concept of the death penalty, even without all the logistical mistakes which come along with it, is in my opinion, and the liberal opinion, against all basic forms of human rights. Reintroduction of the death penalty is going back to the dark ages, but unfortunately it is actually not so long ago that the last execution in the UK took place. The last execution took place in the UK in 1964, depending how old you are, it is quite likely your parents were alive at this point, isn’t that a thought. In fact, the death penalty remained technically legally until 1998, so although this is a debate that is almost not worth having, we mustn’t neglect what is very recent in our history.
I must take my hat off to Labour for the original suspension of the death penalty for murder, this was the fine work Labour MP Sydney Silverman. The suspension was only between 1965-1969 (and only for murder), but this was a milestone moment, as since 1965 there have been no executions in the UK.
The right to life, and the right to live free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishments, are both protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the UN in 1948 as the common standards to be achieved for all people in all nations. Although technically, the death penalty is legal (for the most heinous crimes) in international law, it is my belief that the death penalty fundamentally undermines the two human rights above. The death penalty both takes away one’s life, and is an inhuman form of punishment. To reinstate the death penalty, would symbolise contempt towards these most basic rights, and potential warn of future infringements on other rights we hold so dearly.
Execution is permanent, evidence is not. The risk of executing someone who is innocent will never be removed, and is never negligible. ‘Since 1973, for example, more than 160 prisoners sent to death row in the USA have later been exonerated or released from death row on grounds of innocence.’ Those are only the recorded figures, there will be many who have been wrongfully executed, but will never get to fight for their justice. Along with these figures, are many that prove that the death penalty is often discriminatory, meaning those with lower socio-economic background, or those who belong to racial, ethnic or religious minorities are more likely to incur the death penalty. Is this a system that we really want to see reintroduced in the UK? I don’t believe any logical, consistent, and compassionate argument can be made for the reintroduction of the death penalty, and I can only hope my fellow editors feel the same way.
Written by Liberal editor Olivia Margaroli
POINT OF INFORMATION
To compare the rights of women to the rights of convicted murders is far too extreme – a Conservative response
Miss Margaroli has made some strong points about the issues with the death penalty, in terms of the risks of sentencing someone wrongfully to death through incomplete evidence. However, it seems that otherwise this argument is simply advocating the rights and fair treatment of people who have committed acts of senseless murder. Furthermore, within her title, she has gone too far when saying we should place the rights of the convicted, such as child murderers, on the same platform as the rights of women.
The discussion surrounding prisoners right of freedom from ‘degrading treatment, or punishment’ raises a number of questions, including whether the current system of punishment is actually degrading and inhuman. Prisoners currently loose other basic human rights, including privacy, property, and freedom from forced labour. Is Miss Margaroli therefore suggesting that we need to go further than abolishing the international death penalty and actually make life for prisoners more comfortable? Perhaps instead of being concerned with the rights of these prisoners we should focus more on the rights of their victims, who have had the right to life taken away from them. The death penalty doesn’t belittle human rights, as this article suggests, murders, rapists and child molesters do.
Similarly to say that the death penalty incurs issues of racial and economic discrimination is actually incorrect. Statistics show that 55.8% of defendants executed on death row are white, and 34.1% are African American. Furthermore, even if there were issues of racial discrimination, it is not solely because of the death penalty, as there are already issues being raised as to whether the current legal system is discriminatory towards certain minorities, due to the racial makeup of prisons. People who are put on death row are put there not because of their race, but because of their crime and the evidence against them. Racial quotas are not set for jail, just as they aren’t set for death row.
I suggest you decrease your public support and compassion for the rights of inhumane criminals, and instead think about how we can make our criminal justice system more effective in order to protect our society.
Written by Conservative editor Eleanor Roberts
Nothing but Agreement – a Labour response
I do not have a lot to add or argue with in this article. Whilst we may have a difference in beliefs on the theory of the death penalty, I could not be more in agreement with Miss Margaroli on the practical application of it.
She is right to identify its incompatibility with human rights, its often racialised use and its fallibility. Hopefully the combination of her article and mine can go some way in convincing our colleague to reconsider her arguments for the death penalty, both moral and economic.
Written by Labour editor Daniel Orchard
For Gods, not men – Labour Article
I believe in the death penalty. I personally feel that there are crimes, though few in number, that are so abhorrent and so contradictory to humanity that the punishment for them should be death. That by committing these offences you have waived your right to existence.
I also believe that the death-penalty should be in no way implemented in UK and that the archaic laws that call for it in cases of high treason should be purged from the statute book lest they are used outside of their previously intended scope. This is due to the huge flaws, not in the concept of the death penalty but in the practical application of it and somewhat of the legal justice system as a whole. Whilst we should not abandon the attempts at improving our justice system we should abandon the notion of the death-penalty. The problem is glaringly obvious. What if we are wrong? You can remove a wrongfully convicted person from prison, give him some money for compensation, and send them on their merry way but you cannot un-kill someone and for that reason alone we should never consider it. The risks are too high.
We’ll leave morality aside and look to pure economics. It would fair for people to think that the death penalty is cost effective. By executing someone you have removed them from the care of the state and they no longer need to pay for the person’s housing, food, medical bills – saving the tax payer money. This could not be further from the truth. In the U.S. death penalty cases vary in cost from state to state but can range anywhere from 30% more than a non-death penalty case to 300% more. The Urban Institute, in an investigation into Maryland death penalty cases, found “A capital-eligible case in which prosecutors unsuccessfully sought the death penalty will cost $1.8 million and a capital-eligible case resulting in a death sentence will cost approximately $3 million”. For comparison, in cases where the death penalty was possible but life without parole was sought instead cost $1.1 million. Whether life without parole should exist is another topic for another day. In California, the most populous state, the capital punishment option costs the state, and therefore the taxpayers, about $120 million a year. Since they re-established the death penalty in 1978 they have spent $4 billion pursuing death penalty cases. The number of convictions leading to successful execution. Thirteen.
An issue with death trials that can be applied to the criminal justice system as a whole is they can rely on only eye witness testimony and still get a conviction. And that sounds great; instead of relying on circumstantial evidence, ask the people sworn to tell the truth. Many people who are called to the stand I am sure believe they are telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing it the truth when they testify that they saw so-and-so mug this person or murder another. The problem with eyewitness accounts? They’re aren’t worth much. Concerns about eye witness accounts were raised by The Supreme Court as early as the 1960’s when they spoke of the “vagaries of eyewitness investigation”. Studies over the next 20 years confirmed these suspicions but it only came to effect in 1989 when DNA evidence started being used to exonerate decades old convictions. The predominate cause of wrongful conviction was eye-witness statements, unsurprising since this has been the main form of evidence for millennia. Human brains, are frankly not great. Their facial recognition and image recall can be affect by all manner of factors like viewing conditions, duress, elevated emotions, and personal biases. Memories can be distorted, implanted and even coerced into existence. Mitigations can be put in place to reduce these factors but they must be incorporated stringently at every stage: from initial reporting, investigation, lineups and trial – in order to work. If not, then a single unknowingly false testimony can be fatal. Such was the case in the execution of Carlos DeLuna in Corpus Christi, Texas, 1989; sentenced to death largely on the word of one man who thought that he saw DeLuna in a bar-fight and later fleeing the scene. And I am sure he did think that. But he was wrong. And Carlos is dead.
Overall my view on the death penalty is similar to Jean-Jacque Rousseau statement on democracy. It is suited to a nation of Gods, not men.
Written by Labour Editor Daniel Orchard
POINT OF INFORMATION
The justice system can get it right – a Conservative response
In many ways I agree with this article, and it does a good job of explaining the financial constraints of the death penalty, which I would argue is the biggest flaw, as well as the main reason for its continuing decline in the US. However, the lack of faith that this response has in the legal system, as well as eye witnesses has worrying implications for the entire prison system.
I am not suggesting that the legal system is perfect, undeniably there are significant issues that need to be addressed, however we need to be able to trust its outcomes to a point, otherwise the whole concept of the justice system is undermined, and this is a dangerous, anarchic thought. Eyewitnesses have helped to provide imperative evidence for thousands of cases in the UK, and although there are circumstances which can contaminate these accounts, given the right conditions, eyewitness testimonies can be incredibly accurate. In fact a study showed that a suspect identifications made with “high confidence” were on average 97% accurate.
One of the points that this article makes is that we can never be fully sure of a conviction, and therefore the death penalty would mean killing any chance of exoneration. However, in many cases I believe murders can be convicted beyond doubt. Cases with strong DNA evidence, CCTV footage, multiple eyewitnesses, and even sometimes confessions we can safely argue that in these cases, criminals can be punished without fear of wrongful conviction. 4% of defendants sentenced to death are innocent, and this undoubtedly makes the death penalty a difficult concept to defend. However, this can change with rigorous legal improvements.
Written By Conservative editor Eleanor Roberts
A strong rebuttal against the abhorrent argument of cost efficiency – a Liberal response
Although I cannot agree with Mr Orchards initial sentiment regarding the death penalty, I am comforted that he qualified this by stating that logistical measures mean it should not be implemented in the UK.
Mr Orchard brings up the important points of wrongful conviction which you can see echoed in my article. I am also pleased to see that a strong rebuttal against the Conservative argument about economic efficiency has been formed. If there were any questions about whether the death penalty would be a ‘cost saving’ policy, then they have been answered here, and the answer is it certainly would not be!
Bringing in the wider conversation surrounding our criminal justice system is a nice touch, it is surely an area where much debate can take place. Afterall, eye-witness testimony is never going to be perfect, it is never even likely to be close, the human brain is far to bounded and erratic, to be solely used to testify against another persons life or livelihood. Among problems of eye-witness testimonies Mr Orchads also mentions that other ways of ‘improving our justice system’ could be implemented, I would have liked to see this idea explored further, but appreciate that clarity and conciseness are important parts of what we do here at POI.
Written by Liberal editor Olivia Margaroli