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The Death Penalty as an Effective Punishment

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The purpose of this essay is to assess the viability of the death penalty as an operative castigation. The death penalty is defined as the legal killing an individual as a sentence. As of 2018, there were 53 countries that still have the death penalty in their legal system and there were an estimated 690 executions in 2018. Punishments are fundamental components of any legal system but there is no broad definition on what entails an ‘effective’ punishment. This essay acknowledges that there are a multitude of facets to consider regarding the effectiveness of the measure and will delve specifically into three factors which are deterrence, recidivism and retribution. Detrimental elements such as the risk of false convictions and a negative correlation between deterrence and murder rates will also be discussed. This paper on the death penalty will be mainly limited to the United States (US) and Singapore, due to their strong stances on the death penalty. The US has a multitude of states in close proximity with differing views on the death penalty. Singapore will be examined for its globally renowned approach to drug related offences. This essay will contend that the death penalty is an efficacious sentence and is an operative tool in nations’ legal systems.

The first argument for the death penalty is due to the deterrence that it provides to society. The National Institute of Justice (n.d.) defined deterrence as the lawbreaking inhibition effects from the risk of sentencing. The country of Singapore will be used as a case example for the effectiveness of the death penalty in terms of deterrence. The Singaporean government has taken a fixed attitude against abolishing capital punishment due to its deterrent effect, especially for drug related offences. The effect is apparent in the low statistics relating to drug related offences in Singapore as compared to other nations. The essay contends that it is reasonable to compare the statistics of drug related offences in Singapore and United Kingdom (UK) as the legal system of Singapore was based upon the UK’s system. Teo (2010) explained how 0.005% of Singaporeans were cannabis addicts which was significantly lower than the rate in UK, which was 8.2%. Furthermore, the fear of the death penalty has caused a reduction in the number of drug abusers in Singapore from 3265 in 2016 to 3089 in 2018. This evidence suggests that threat of the death penalty has resulted in general adherence to the drug laws in Singapore and contributes to the effectiveness of the measure. Singaporeans are also generally supportive of the death penalty for drug related offences demonstrated by how 86.9% of respondents to a survey carried out by the National University of Singapore supported it. The strong public support for the measure possibly reinforces the notion that citizens believe that the death penalty is a useful tool and contributes to the safety of the country. The short time period between conviction and execution in Singapore has also contributed greatly to the deterrent effect as it is practically a guaranteed outcome once the trial is complete. It seems reasonable to conclude that the deterrent effect has a positive impact on certain societies in dissuading potential criminals from committing offences and can contribute to maintaining a low crime rate.

However, opponents claim that there is a lack of correlation between deterrence and the death penalty and instead there is the existence of an inverse relationship. An example would be how certain states in the United States with the death penalty have higher rates of murder than states without it. For example, Louisiana with the death penalty had a murder rate of 12 citizens per 100 000 population compared to Illinois without the death penalty which had a murder rate of about 8 citizens per 100 000 population. This evidence suggests that the existence of the death penalty may be causing more crimes instead of being an effective deterrent.

This may seem persuasive at first, but it mainly applies to certain areas of the US. Tures (2017) refutes the inverse relationship by stating that 11 out of the 25 states with the lowest rates of murder in the United States have the death penalty. Furthermore, the idea that there is no correlation might be due to the death penalty being infrequently utilised by countries and that often it takes a significant amount of time to be put in place. This somewhat diminishes the argument that no correlation can be drawn between the death penalty and a deterrent effect. A further example in support of deterrence would be in the 1970s in the United States when there was a temporary embargo of the death penalty. This led to an instantaneous increase in the number of murders committed and subsequently a reduction in the number of murders directly after the ban was raised which showed that there was some merit to the death penalty discouraging criminals from committing offences.

The second aspect for the death penalty would be recidivism. It generally refers to the person’s reversion into committing unlawful actions after the punishment. An argument can be made that the availability of the death penalty for countries would be the most beneficial method in preventing criminals from committing any serious unlawful acts again. Muhlhausen (2014) elaborated on this by stating that some offences are so atrocious that death sentences should be available to remove the offender from society. This concept is supported by the high rates of recidivism rates in areas of the United States without the death penalty specifically New York with 42%. This is much higher than the average rate of recidivism in the United States which was 37%. This suggests that the death penalty unlike other punishments would decisively prevent further harm from being committed to society as the offenders would be removed from the equation.

However, critics of the re-offending argument question this and argue that other forms of punishment are more effective in preventing offenders from committing crimes. It can be acknowledged that the death penalty definitively removes the offender from society, but alternative methods can allow the offender to realise his mistakes before returning to society as a law-abiding citizen. An example would be community sentences where research by the Scottish Government (2015) showed that 28% of offenders that were given community service orders reoffended compared to 53% of individuals who were given jail sentences. This proposes that alternative sentences to the death penalty can be more effective in terms of positively influencing the wrongdoer into returning to civilised order. A further alternative to the death penalty would be life imprisonment which means the inmates would be held in prison for the remainder of their lives. This completely removes the possibility that the criminals would harm society again and prolongs the period that they must contemplate on their actions.

The argument, however, fails to consider that that other forms of punishment apart from the death penalty such as life imprisonment do not comprehensively protect the citizens of the country. The individual may not be able to cause harm to the public as he is in jail, but he has the potential to damage other prisoners or members of the prison staff. An example would be prisons in New York of the United States, which does not have the death penalty. In 2018, it had 972 cases of attacks on prison workers and 1164 cases of assault on prisoners which illustrates the futility of prison sentences as a means of preventing inmates from reoffending. This shows that other methods of punishment such as regulation after their sentencing had little effect on their choice concerning recidivism and further emphasizes the effectiveness of the death penalty.

The third aspect for comparison would be retribution. Retribution constitutes the degree to which the sentence is meant to be on the same level as the offence committed and it should be relatively close to the offence committed. Retribution in terms of the death penalty is fairly useful as it affords closure to the victims and parties affected by the actions of the wrongdoer especially in murder cases. Closure refers to the finalisation of a disturbing event for an individual. It has been argued that the death penalty allows victims and affected parties to get some measure of catharsis through the execution of the offender. This is supported by a poll carried out by the Washington Post (2001) showed that 60% of respondents approved of the death penalty as fair as it provided a conclusion to the suffering of a victim’s family. Correspondingly, Divine (2003) argued that other methods of punishment such as fines are conceivably insignificant in terms of providing comfort to families and that putting a financial value on the life would essentially belittle it’s worth.

However, an argument can be made for the risk of the death penalty taking the life of innocent individuals through false trials (BBC). Amnesty International (n.d.) further elaborated on this point by stating how 160 inmates in the US have been sentenced to death since the 1970s on false convictions. This shows that although it provides reprisal for the victim’s families there is still the dormant hazard of individuals being wrongfully put to death, which is an irreversible consequence. Von Drehle (2014) supported this by stating that almost four percent of all convictions are flawed. It can be said that as long as the justice system in countries are not infallible, the jeopardy of wrongfully convicting and executing innocents would remain in society.

Whilst this position is popular, it is not supported by significant evidence as it can be said that in modern society wrongful termination of life is a remote possibility. This is supported by the number of individuals in the US who have been absolved of their crimes after a plea to the courts. According to the Innocence Project (n.d) there has been a total of 365 individuals who were exonerated in the US since the 1990s. This evidence illustrates the stronger and more robust appeals systems that many countries have in their legal arrangements which can prevent any accidents in terms of false convictions leading to wrongful deaths. As a result, the efficacy of the death penalty can be seen from the overall retribution effect and the argument of false convictions is negated to a certain extent by the durable legal systems in countries.

This essay sought to evaluate three segments of the death penalty which were deterrence, reoffending and retribution. The example of Singapore demonstrates the effectiveness of the death penalty in strongly discouraging drug related offences and the high reoffending rates in certain areas of the US show that other forms of punishment are necessarily successful in reducing recidivism. The essay also presented that the closure the death penalty provides to the victims results in the most appropriate form of punishment to content them. The essay does acknowledge the existence of adverse opinions regarding the death penalty but contends that overall the positives of the death penalty far outweigh the negatives. This essay concludes with the statement that the death penalty is a cogent punishment tool in any nation’s legal system.

Reference List

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