Sunday, November 18, 2007

Death penalty again

I have always been 'against' capital punishment.

My main reasons had to do with the view that killing people against their express wishes is barbaric, as well as with the fact that once a wrongly sentenced person has been killed, no subsequently discovered mistakes can possibly be rectified as the innocently executed person cannot be brought back to life. I was also always concerned that in the USA at least the distribution of death penalty suggests a legal system that is fundamentally unjust. Those most likely to get handed down a capital punishment verdict happen to belong to ethnic minority groups, and they happen to be poor. Rich murderers such as OJ Simpson on the other hand are able to buy themselves out of such verdicts by means of deploying legal teams capable of getting them off the hook.

Last but by no means least I considered the argument from the deterrent effect of capital punishment unconvincing, mostly because there had been no empirical evidence actually supporting this argument. This last reason is a truly important matter. If it can be shown that the existence of capital punishment incontrovertibly reduces the number of murders of innocent people one would at least have one powerful reason to reconsider this kind of punishment. It would then not seem any longer to be the case that a slam-dunk type case against the death penalty exists. One could still consider it barbaric, of course, and one could (one should!) have serious concerns about erroneous judgments, but these sorts of costs could well be outweighed by lives otherwise preserved thanks to the deterrent effect.

Well, you might want to review this particular issue. The New York Times today analyses recent empirical evidence and concludes that there is reasonably strong evidence supporting the claim that there is a deterrent effect. Even if you still think that capital punishment is an unconditional 'no no', you might want to reconsider your reasons for holding this view in light of the research reviewed in the NYT.


  1. There's one bad mistake in the article (which you may also have noticed).

    It says that the material favouring a deterrent effect appears in peer-reviewed economics journals while the material against it appears in law journals edited by students.

    That contrast gives totally the wrong impression.

    There's a long (and I think honourable) tradition in the discipline of Law that many of the best academic journals are administered by boards comprised of outstanding students, who are hand-picked by the faculty of the relevant law school. Those ... ahem ... mere students have access to faculty members for advice, and they send articles to academic referees in the same way as any other refereed journal. Decisions as to what is published are based on the advice of the referees.

    The review that I was on for a while as a law undergraduate, the Melbourne University Law Review, is a very highly regarded refereed journal. Its standards for selection of articles are matched by exceptionally thorough checking and editing of articles once they are accepted.

    I'd be pretty confident that the best law reviews of this kind in the US are of at least the same standard.

    In short, the writer completely misunderstands the nature of these "student-edited" journals.

    It may not undermine the article as a whole, but it's annoying.

  2. I should say this, though. First, I can't imagine ever advocating capital punishment - but that's because of the great difficulties in making such an extreme, no-way-back form of punishment operate justly and reliably.

    However, I'm not at all sure that I think it is "barbaric" in all cases. It's barbaric to punish someone harshly for some trivial offence or for something harmless. I think that a lot of punishments that we impose now are probably barbaric. If people really understood what prison is like, they would probably be less willing to impose crushing or brutalising prison sentences.

    But I'm just not so sure that capital punishment is barbaric when it's a response to the cruelest kinds of crime: some of the most pitiless and shocking kinds of murder, rape, torture and so on. People who have demonstrated a psychological capacity to commit such crimes by actually committing them don't deserve much in the way of a civilised response in my view. I wouldn't condone torturing them, but I'm not sure why it is so bad to respond by simply getting rid of them.

    That said, I still think there are good reasons not to reintroduce the death penalty, so I think that in those cruel and shocking cases - and assuming the person's actions were not out of character in some remarkable way (because they were massively drugged at the time, or coerced, or their will was overborne in some other way) - we should be prepared to lock them up permanently with no possibility of parole.


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