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The Forum > Article Comments > The hangman and the electric chair - Part 2 > Comments

The hangman and the electric chair - Part 2 : Comments

By Bernie Matthews, published 29/7/2005

Bernie Matthews argues the death penalty may be a deterrent but it has a cost.

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Bernie, what you describe about the irreversibility of judgements once a state sponsored death has been carried out are already well known and are obviously the first arguments put forward when campaigning for abolition.

As strong as these arguments are, there are several other arguments against capital punishment that also add weight to the case for abolition.

The USA has the highest profile amongst nations that continue this practice so it is a useful start to observe that African Americans make up less than 13% of the poulation yet make up nearly half of the inmates on death row. This really indicates a much deeper social problem and it is far to simplistic to shrug one's shoulders and conclude that black people murder more often. If the relative authorities were really serious about reducing the murder rates it would be far more useful to investigate and then rectify the underlying causes of this disparity rather than take the easy way out.

Second to this, retention of capital punishment may actually lead to less convictions as potential jurors may find a certain reluctance to reach a guilty verdict with the knowledge that their decision may have irreversible consequences.

Although the murder rates in the USA are declining, it seems a bit ironic that they appear to be dropping faster in those states that have already abolished this form of punishment.

The pro lobby will argue that the infrequency of wrongful judgements is quite acceptable but many times fail to be quite so vocal when asked if they would be as supportive if it were their son or brother sitting in the chair who may well be innocent.

We could go on forever. Bernie, I would like to see part 3 of your article investigate the some other arguments in support of abolition.
Posted by crocodile, Friday, 29 July 2005 11:13:12 AM
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It sickens me every time I see TV broadcasts from America of people outside prisons waiting for an execution and cheering and generally having a good time. If as a civilised society we decide that it’s wrong to take a human life, then the death penalty is nothing but state sanctioned murder. How are the people who agree with the death penalty, and those who cheer and take joy while it is carried it, different from the recipient?

I think quite apart from the issue of the irrevocability of capital punishment, punishment as a means of behaviour modification, is known to be ineffective. Solid research in behavioural psychology has been showing this for decades. Most often an organism will simply learn the “rules” of punishment and avoid being caught. Even where an offender doesn’t re-offend, frequently other dysfunctional behaviours result.

Our society’s whole approach to crime prevention needs to be rethought. The fear of punishment probably only deters those people who were unlikely to commit any kind of crime in the first place. And while I don’t disagree with the need to remove some people temporarily from society to prevent them from harming others – taking someone who has displayed antisocial behaviour of some kind and putting them in an environment where they socialise only with others who display similar antisocial tendencies… is only going to normalise those tendencies. It isn’t smart.

Honestly, I think the problem is more generic. Western culture is fairly aggressive. The basic competitive nature of our society doesn’t just encourage people to “do their best”, but to do whatever they can to get ahead.

The most promising constructive development I’ve seen in terms of crime prevention, are trials in the US of a program in primary schools (in areas with high rates of violent crimes) where children are taught basically how to be nice to each other, and why that’s important. Teaching prosocial behaviour to children may seem such a small thing, but is both less repulsive and more likely to deter violence against others than the promise of lethal injection.
Posted by AD, Thursday, 11 August 2005 7:27:56 PM
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