The Capital Punishment Debate
"If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call."— John McAdams - Marquette University/Department of Political Science, on deterrence
Few Subjects Raise Such Furore of Debate as Capital Punishment
What are the arguments and why such public outcry from both sides of the court?
Is it murder, revenge, or justice? Does it alleviate problems or create them?
The debate hinges on three questions:
- Is it a deterrent to crime?
- Is it cruel or unnecessary?
- Is it right for the state to take the life of an individual?
However the question of whose argument is best, of what's black and what's white, becomes often overshadowed by the greyer tones of public opinion, indignation and fear.
After all the next victim could be a loved one, or even ourselves.
With such considerations at stake, it's important we have a clear objective to which we can implement effective, purposeful solutions. Unfortunately public anxiety frequently detracts from wise decision making, solutions tending to bypass careful debate in favour of baser knee-jerk reactions.
That said, history is also replete with well debated solutions that proved completely inadequate.
The question remains then:
What is the best thing to be done ethically, practically and of necessity with violent criminals?
For some, the death penalty isn't an ideal as much as the natural consequence of societal permissiveness.
This argument places the blame for extreme crime at the feet of society, not just the criminal. Any culture scornful of extreme violence while apathetic toward contributive harmful influences [e.g. access to alcohol, violent video games etc] is a society more interested in mowing the grass than getting to the root of the problem.
Such a moral neutrality will naturally effect two outcomes: corrupting influences will become entrenched resulting in escalating extreme crime. Having condoned the wind, society reaps the whirlwind.
Though advocates of this viewpoint do not see capital punishment as an ideal solution, they believe it will remain the only interim measure that controls the problem as long as society refuses to dig deeper.
Capital Punishment Within Australia
Historically, the European settlement of Australia resulted from an alternative to capital punishment —something reserved for the habitual offender. Transported by convict ship to serve their life sentences down-under, these 'law breakers' became the forbears of white Australia.
Thomas Barrett is believed to have been the first convict executed in Australia. Charged with stealing, he was tried, condemned and hanged all on the same day, 27 February 1788.
Not until the 19th century did opponents to this form of punishment arise. By the 20th century all states and territories had restricted or replaced its use, Queensland being the first in 1922, followed by New South Wales (1955), Tasmania (1968), Northern Territory & ACT (1973), Victoria (1975), South Australia (1976), and Western Australia (1984). The last execution being Ronald Ryan in the late 1960s.
Abolitionist vs. Retentionist
Apart from a few statutes that still retain execution for treason and piracy, the abolitionists have so far won their case, but this may prove to be a throne hard to retain if history does indeed repeat itself.
Is capital punishment a deterrent? The abolitionists resound 'No', the retentionists' reply 'It deters the one executed'.
Is it cruel or unnecessary? The abolitionists shout 'yes', the retentionists' retort, 'Taking a persons life does not have to involve cruelty, only justice. And justice is necessary.'
Is it right for the state to take the life of an individual? The abolitionists declare 'No', the retentionist responds, 'The State is only a tool of the people, if the people decide by vote that it is right to take a life, the state must comply.'
But to that the abolitionist replies, 'Capital punishment is revenge. One wrong does not right another. Just because capital punishment could be legal does not mean it is right, it just means it is legally wrong.'
And of course, there is always the potential for mistake. Consider the Christie Murders. The police suspected a man whose wife was killed. Interrogated him, got a confession, had him hanged. However, the murders continued… 'whoops, sorry mate, our mistake'.
After a few more murders they finally tracked down Reginald Christie. He hung too. They think they got the right man this time. The first was awarded a posthumous pardon -- Umm, how comforting.
What are your thoughts?
Do you think Capital Punishment is a valid option?
- Australian Crime: Facts & figures report shows teen are the most violent Australians | News.com.
TEENAGERS aged 15 to 19 are Australia's most dangerous people, new figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology showing violent crime is highest among this group.
© 2010 Richard Parr