Rethinking the death penalty

| January 9, 2019

I recently asked someone why we don’t have the death penalty. They couldn’t give an answer which made any sense to me.

As a regular television news viewer I am increasingly concerned at the violence which is committed in our countries cities and towns. A lot of people that I come in contact with agree that the death penalty should be brought back. Some would like to see paedophiles, rapists and drug pushers added to the list of murderers to be executed.

The death penalty is one answer to violent crime in Australia and why we haven’t got it in our crime fighting tool box is a great mystery to many of our citizens.

Capital punishment is not the only solution to violence but, just like any treatment plan for a disease, it is a valuable component. For centuries it was used by most civilised societies and it has only been in recent history that we have removed the practice from our legal system.

We, as a society, still kill human eating sharks and other animals that go rogue even when it happens in their domain or territory, but to kill another human for their offence is called inhumane.

Some research was needed. Why did we abolish the death penalty and who was behind the idea that we didn’t need it any more?

Australia’s opposition to the death penalty

Abolition of the death penalty has broad bipartisan political support. All jurisdictions in Australia had abolished the death penalty by 1985 and in 2010, the federal government passed legislation that prohibited the reintroduction of capital punishment.

Reflecting our commitment to universal human rights, our politicians believe as a matter of principle that the death penalty has no place in the modern world. It brutalizes human society, is degrading, and is an affront to human dignity.

In particular, we oppose the death penalty because it is irrevocable and miscarriages of justice cannot be rectified, although no legal system is safe from error. Furthermore, it denies any possibility of rehabilitation to the convicted individual.

In addition, there is no convincing evidence that it is a more effective deterrent than long-term or life imprisonment; and finally, it is unfair – it is used disproportionately against the poor, people with intellectual or mental disabilities and minority groups.

Public opinion

As a nation, Australia has maintained its clear opposition to the death penalty.  It’s been close to 50 years since the last judicial execution in this country. However, despite that official stance, the position of Australia’s citizenry has been less certain.

Since 1947, pollster Roy Morgan has gone to the Australian public 17 times to ask the question: “Should the penalty for murder be death or imprisonment?” In only four of those polls – and two of those were conducted a month apart – has the majority answer been “imprisonment”.

In all other cases, the public has backed capital punishment for the most egregious crimes, often by a wide margin.  The numbers backing the death penalty often top 50%, as the survey also includes an “undecided” option, which has ranged, over the years, between 6% and 17%.

So you might say, looking at all the polls, that ordinary Australians are more equivocal about the death penalty than our political leaders, and, if you force us to choose one or the other, we’ll most likely back it.

There is, however, a somewhat inconsistent attitude to the death penalty among Australians.  Public opinion polls reveal marked differences, depending on whether those on death row are Australians or foreigners, and whether the crimes were committed in Australia or overseas.

When it comes to domestic murder convictions, Australians are resolutely opposed to the death penalty, with 67 percent preferring imprisonment, and only 23 percent favouring capital punishment, according to a 2009 poll.

Swap the crime to drug offences committed overseas, and there is suddenly less opposition to capital punishment.  When a January 2015 Morgan poll asked respondents: ‘In Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Singapore and some other countries, the penalty for drug trafficking is death. If an Australian is convicted of trafficking drugs in another country and sentenced to death, in your opinion, should the penalty be carried out or not?’, 52 percent answered ‘yes’, and 48 percent ‘no’.

When terrorism offences enter the fray, views on the death penalty shift yet again.  Former Prime Minister John Howard backed the death penalty in Indonesia for the perpetrators of the 2002 Bali bombings, which claimed 202 lives, including 88 Australians.

small majority (52.5 percent) of Australians favour the death penalty for deadly terrorist acts in Australia, according to a 2014 poll conducted by Roy Morgan Research with 1,307 respondents.  This represented a significant increase from 2009 when only 23% of Australians had supported the death penalty being imposed for convicted murderers.

Irrespective of public opinion, federal laws, as well as United Nations conventions, currently preclude the reintroduction of capital punishment in Australia but strong arguments remain for its reconsideration.

The costs of imprisonment

It costs around $110,000 per person per year to keep someone incarcerated.  The current cost of a life sentence, which may amount to twenty five years, is therefore around $2.75 million, even without considering future inflation.

Despite this considerable drain on the public purse, it is sometimes argued that execution would prove even more expensive on an individual basis, given the appeals and lengthy legal arguments the process would inevitably generate.  However, this could be balanced by a reduction in prison facilities and staff if fewer life sentences were imposed, given the capital alternative.

Beyond the economic argument, we must also consider the expense in terms of grief and mental trauma to the families and friends of victims of a violent death.

Mistakes were made in the past

It is a fact that innocent people have been executed in the past and miscarriages of justice persist in some countries.  However, in our country, advances in forensic science and DNA analysis, alongside intense media and legal scrutiny, have greatly reduced the risk of wrongful conviction.

The argument that capital punishment would save innocent lives is, to my mind, rather stronger.  The contention that the prospect of execution would not deter a significant percentage of potential offenders is ludicrous. Indeed, to prove the argument you would need to find a considerable number of people willing to admit they not only planned to kill, but cared nothing of the consequences to their own life in the process.

The argument that vulnerable groups would suffer unduly is also outdated.  A glance at the headlines shows that it is not only the poor or members of minority groups who are brought to trial. Renowned and famous people, the clergy and even the politicians are no longer exempt from justice over time.  The balance of power is more evenly distributed in today`s world than ever before.

Have we, the Australian people, been hoodwinked into believing that it is somehow inhumane to inflict the ultimate punishment for wanton murder?  There is nothing humane about locking a person in a cage for life.  Imprisonment is not humane at all – we do it to punish the offender and protect the rest of society.

Time for a rethink?

Today’s generation perhaps have a different viewpoint from those of our forebears who suffered through two world wars. They had seen death on a mammoth scale, but they also learned that to stop evil one needs to employ hard measures.  Today we have a more sensitive and sympathetic approach, but is it really creating a better society?

Can we afford to stay on our present path ? We have tried not having capital punishment for 50 years and there is no evidence that anything has changed for the better.  The arguments for and against capital punishment will continue to rage but one thing is for certain, when a murderer is executed it is definitely the end of the matter.