The recent metro attack in Taipei, Taiwan, which resulted in 4 deaths and more than 20 injured, led to a fervent debate over whether the current death penalty in place serves as a deterrent for such a vicious yet random attack. Proponents of the death penalty argue that harsh sentences would promote a safer society, and it is certainly justice for most people to give a murderer what he or she deserves. Opponents of the death penalty, on the other hand, often assert that the death penalty is developed from a revenge mentality and does not serve as deterrence to crime. In short, the debate can be sorted into two parts: ethics (what is justice?) and utility (does it work?).
I have been a soft proponent of the death penalty in the past. Now I slightly favor the abolitionist movement. I have given it some thought, and hopefully the information that I have gathered here can convince others to ponder and reexamine their stance on the issue. Justice is a dish best served cold? …Or should we sit down and think about it?
Ethically, the death penalty delivers a straight-forward answer to murder. Giving a murderer a second chance is an insult to the innocent victims who have never been offered a second chance. It’s not fair that we afford a taxpayer sponsored livelihood to someone who maliciously killed another person in cold blood. I still believe in these things. I am very convinced that some people do not deserve to live.
However, I am a petty individual with a mind that is only big enough to serve myself. The society, as a whole, should be better than myself. The society needs to preoccupy itself with bigger issues such as the practicality of its policy, and building a moral society where its solution may not be the most straight-forward, but the most humane. It should not kill a person for killing just as it should not cut off a person’s ear for cutting off another person’s ear. Not because a murderer deserves to live, but because a functioning government should not be motivated by personal emotion. What about the cost of keeping someone imprisoned for life? Well, to refute the rocking on taxpayers’ dime argument, prisoners can be and should be allowed to labor in confinement to support himself or herself. There has to be thousands of tasks that are so mundane, repetitive, and soul-breaking that simply by having to live another 40, 50 years doing them is a prolonged death in itself. Put them away, let them do time, death is shallow in comparison.
The bigger question at hand is whether the death penalty serves as a deterrent to crime. That is to say, are people less likely to kill others, if it is clear that they may get caught and sentenced to death? Let’s take a look at where various countries in the world stand on the death penalty, and the rates of homicide in each jurisdiction. The most notable examples of countries that continue to retain the death penalty are the United States (depending on the state), China (which reportedly executed more people than all the other countries put together), and of course, Taiwan. For your reference, I have created a map which overlaps current death penalty policy data from Amnesty International and homicide rates by country in 2011-2012 from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Looking at the map, it is not hard to see that countries in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa have the highest homicide rates. Europe serves as one of the best examples against correlation between homicide rate and the death penalty, as violent crimes are few and far in between throughout European countries, despite the almost universal lack of death penalty in Europe. Taiwan has a higher homicide rate than its neighboring South Korea, even though South Korea has not executed anyone in 13 years, and is considered a de facto abolitionist by the Amnesty International. Canada enjoys lower violent crime statistics than the United States, also despite the fact that no murderers die for their crime in Canada. Moreover, countries that have abolished the death penalty in the recent years, such as Argentina and the Philippines, show very little variation on homicide rates before and after the policy change. The examples go on. It is perhaps more fair to suggest from this map that homicides are heavily concentrated in countries with lower human development indices, where poverty is high and education level is low, and organized crime is rampant independent from whether the death penalty is in place.
Ultimately, I would argue that there is very little empirical evidence on the effectiveness of the death penalty. Is it morally sound to kill a person who killed? Do we still believe in “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe,” as specified in the ancient Babylonian Hammurabi Code, which dates back to 1772 BC? More than two-thirds of the countries in the world have overturned the death penalty, through law or in practice. If it serves little purpose and is simply a remnant of our archaic past, perhaps acting out of reflexive vengeance is something we might want to give up to live in a more civil society.
(Feature photo of lethal injection room at San Quentin Prison in California, United States, from CA Dept. of Corrections.)