Editorial: Punishing Capital Punishment
As of 2022, over 70% of the world’s countries have now abolished the death penalty, with Malaysia announcing plans to abolish it in June this year. Where does the rest of the world stand? What are the reasons why it still exists? Should it continue to do so? This article aims to provide an answer to these questions.
Origins of Capital Punishment
The origins of capital punishment can be traced back to almost every society across the world—dating beyond the beginning of recorded history. From being an integral part of tribal justice, to the codification and definition of capital punishment, it has been a hallmark of justice systems for many years now. That being said, even though the current widespread abolitionist movement is not that old, there have been brief periods in history that have involved abolitionist regimes.
As mentioned above, over 70% of the world’s countries have now abolished the death penalty. The image below succinctly describes and classifies countries based on their views surrounding capital punishment. Most parts of Europe have abolished the death penalty in all cases, while retentionist countries seem concentrated in Asia and North Africa.
Why is the death penalty still prevalent?
People that argue for the death penalty are collectively terms as retentionists. They believe that the death penalty helps in preventing future crimes and is an important aspect in upholding the state of law and order within a sovereign. Furthermore, people believe that it is the foremost way of ensuring the victim and their family receive justice and honor.
Reasons for abolitioning capital punishment
There are various reasons why the world is edging toward the abolishment of capital punishment.
The strongest argument, and also the most objective, refers to research around capital punishment and crime deterrance. There is no conclusive or credible research that claims that there exists a relationship between crime deterrence and the institution of capital punishment. Furthermore, according to Amnesty International, the murder rate in Canada in 2003, 27 years after the death penalty was abolished, was 44% lower than in 1975, when it was still legal.
Another objection lies in the argument against public support. Proponents of the death penalty claim that since publics support the institution of capital punishment, and since governments are agents for public opinion, capital punishment should remain institutionalised. According to the Pew Research Center, about 60% of the American public is in favour of the death penalty, ranging from being somewhat in favour, to strongly in favour.
But public opinion is often morally wrong or ill-representative of marginalized and oppressed opinions. There existed a time where a majority of individuals were against universal adult suffrage, on grounds of race or sex, for example. Such a proposition now seems immoral and reprehensible—could the same be said for the death penalty?
The research from the Pew Research Center also mentions that 78% of people believe there exists risk that an innocent person will be put to death, which is linked to another point against capital punishment: racial and other inequalities in capital punishment. In the United States for example, where white victims account for 50% of all murder victims, nearly 80% of all cases involving the death penalty are where the victim is white. There have also been reports of racial discrimination with respect to jury selection. In addition to representing aspects of systemic racism that are widely existent in society, they represent inequalities within the use of capital punishment—it is used more often to punish crimes against a certain race compared to a different one.
These are all arguments based on objective, practical uses of the death penalty. While they should be enough to argue against the institution of capital punishment, I venture to argue against it on ideological grounds as well.
What gives the state the authority and power to execute someone?
The power of a sovereign stems from the people that are part of that society. In democratic societies, this idea exists in the form of free and fair elections—people that are part of society vote for their chosen candidate. Therefore, it is straightforward to assume the authority that the state has over the land it governs, as it is the elected (in democratic societies) or “chosen” (through negotiation or force, in non-democratic societies), representative of the people.
This power extends into the power of incarceration. When individuals negatively affect societies, they can be punished for their actions using a fair and equal judicial process. The state would therefore have the power to “exclude” these individuals from society—they can be held in detention facilities/prison, have certain rights taken away (right to free movement, right to vote, etc.) and have limitations on their interactions with society. The state has authority to keep the individual from having a continued negative effect on society.
In this situation, the individual is no longer a part of the society. While the state can use its power to keep the individual secluded from society, it is important to remember where the state’s power comes from—society, and where its power extends to—society. The state can keep an individual secluded from society but once secluded, does the state still have authority or power over the individual? Society does not need protection from someone incarcerated since they are already detained and restricted, and therefore not subject to the state’s power.
Therefore the state has no jurisdiction over whether an incarcerated individual can be affected in any way. The state therefore does not have the jurisdiction or authority to use the death penalty.
This article has analysed various research-based arguments against the death penalty, as well as demonstrated an ideological argument against the use of the death penalty, and the state’s authority for the same. It is important to note that even though the death penalty is in use in several places around the world, its use is dwindling and seems on track to be universally absent.