The death penalty was long seen as the only method for dealing with society’s most dangerous elements and until relatively recently its use went unquestioned. More enlightened times, however, saw a shift in attitudes and a move from a purely reactionary response to violent crime towards incarceration and programmes intended to help convicts rehabilitate. Still, the perceived rise in crime over the past decades has led to calls for the re-introduction of capital punishment. Those in favour of such a move would claim it is the only reasonable response to such heinous crimes as rape and murder. Such views stem from the failure of the punitive measures currently at the disposal of the judicial system and a visceral need for those touched by violent crime to see justice done. Such arguments are, however, a short-sighted response to a problem that requires vision. The re-introduction of the death penalty cannot be justified, as not only would would it fail to deal with the problem of brutal criminals, but it would even exacerbate it and our judicial systems are flawed.
To begin with, those in favour of re-introducing capital punishment would argue that it would serve as a fierce deterrent. In those countries where the death penalty is still current no-one could plausibly be said to be ignorant of the possible punishment that awaits a convicted murderer, so it would only be reasonable to conclude that the death penalty would be a powerful discouragement to anyone contemplating murder. Whilst the superficial logic of such a train of thought cannot be denied, statistics reveal that, however compelling the theory, it is not borne out in practice and capital punishment fails as a deterrent. Some commit murder under the influence of drugs or alcohol in a state where logical thought of cause and effect is suspended. Others kill seized by fear or passion when the consequences of their actions are immaterial. Still others are fully aware of the potential consequences, but plan to escape detection, thus rendering the consequences, however dreadful, irrelevant. We see, then, that the death penalty fails in its stated aim as a deterrent.
Whilst it may not eradicate violent crime entirely, its advocates would contend that, where it fails to deter, it is sure to punish. This would at least eliminate the risk of recidivism and be a condign reprisal for an atrocious deed. Notwithstanding a ring of righteous truth to this argument, it neglects to take into account the long-term consequences of putting violent criminals to death. The death penalty brutalises society. Execution, as a weapon in the armoury of the judicial system, legitimises killing. If the state kills as a purportedly just response to violent wrongdoing, then the man in the street may also feel at liberty to follow suit. This compounds the violence that society cannot prevent with an added layer of state-sanctioned violence. The death penalty therefore encourages an escalation in the violence it professes to combat.
Above all, those who argue for the re-introduction of the death penalty may claim, the taking of a human life is the ultimate crime and in committing such a crime, a criminal deserves the ultimate punishment. This way of thinking, however, shows more faith in the judicial system than it merits. Miscarriages of justice are known to occur. DNA tests have revealed that long-dead convicted murderers were in fact wrongly convicted, but the truth surfaced too late to save the defendants. The Guildford Four were convicted of IRA bombings in Britain in 1974. Fifteen years later a campaign to free them revealed that their convictions were unsafe. Were it not for the fact that Britain has not had the death penalty since 1958, the Guildford Four would have been put to death long before the evidence that freed them had come to light. We can thus see that the death penalty is unsafe.
As has been demonstrated, recent calls for the re-introduction of the death penalty are based on the opinion that it represents a deterrent and a condign punishment for unpalatable crimes. It was seen, however, that, due to the nature of the majority of murders and murderers, the much-vaunted deterrent effect of the death penalty is a myth. More importantly, capital punishment is unsafe insofar as the judicial system is fallible. Bearing in mind the above arguments, it is only sensible to conclude that we should not seek to re-introduce the death penalty.
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