Murder from on high: Death penalty in today's world
What is the point of criminal justice?
Patrick Kennedy-Hunt | 6 November 2015

What is the point of criminal justice?

It’s an odd question, but not one we necessarily give a great deal of thought to; generally however there are three aims which are quoted as the purpose of criminal justice.

The first aim of criminal justice is rehabilitation- that is the goal of helping offenders become productive members of society once again. I believe this is a good thing for obvious reasons. After all, you can’t keep your entire population locked up forever.The second aim of criminal justice is social cohesion. By this I mean making people feel that justice has been done and that the system is taking care of them (so that nobody is tempted to exact their own revenge). Unfortunately, this is a little less noble as an aim; successive presidents in the US increased the penalties for crime, to the extent that the USA leads the world for per-capita incarceration rate. In the UK it is almost as fashionable to be harsh on criminals as immigrants. At its heart, this appears to me to be a politically driven process; who can be the harshest on crime? Unfortunately this attitude does not benefit society as a whole; merely people’s gut reactions and votes.

The final aim of criminal justice is to incapacitate offenders. A man in prison will not murder anyone. Unless he’s in America; then all bets are off.

So here’s another question: where does killing people fit in? Rehabilitation? Unfortunately not; however any other sentence would equally not rehabilitate as these offenders are simply too dangerous to be released again. How about social cohesion? If your son, daughter, brother, sister, parent or friend had died it would certainly be understandable for you to seek to punish those responsible. It would be quite reasonable to wish that perpetrator dead. But I am not in that situation. Odds are, you aren’t either. Neither is 99% of America, or China or any other country with the death penalty.

Yet in these countries, people are being killed for their crimes. By their government, the government which represents the people. So every time that government acts, it acts in the name of its citizens which elected it. In short, state sponsored executions are done in the name of people who have not been wronged. The place where the death penalty is most effective, however, is in prevention; preventing people from committing further offences. It is also useful as a deterrent: nobody wants to risk death, surely? Apparently not, with researchers not observing a significant difference in homicide rates between states with and without the death penalty.

What about cost? It costs a lot to lock people up, surely it is better to use that money elsewhere? There are two problems I have with this: firstly, taking a human life is something really remarkable; it cannot be a decision made lightly. How can you attach a monetary value to somebody? Secondly, this simply does not add up; it is simply cheaper for America to incarcerate than go through a lengthy appeals process.

So why does more than 50% of the UK population (higher in America and elsewhere) support capital punishment? The only reason I can find is the fact that there is some sense of justice in the idea that people we view as having done wrong should suffer; a kind of biblical tit for tat.

There is clearly no logical and objective reason for supporting capital punishment, so let us look at the emotional side of the issue. Obviously we may feel strongly that some people deserve to die, but consider the fact that crime is by its nature, sad. At the end of the day, the vast majority of serious crime benefits few if any. The perpetrator suffers hugely, within the cases we are discussing years of their lives being thrown out of the window in a humiliating prison regime. The victim and their family is clearly even worse off. The public also suffer, for it is taxpayers money which must be used to prevent further crime and set an example. My argument is simply that all capital punishment can ever do is make this issue worse for two of those three parties: taxpayers lose out and the perpetrator is caused unnecessary suffering. This is the reason parliament has refused the death penalty (despite it being supported by the public as a whole quite clearly).

In countries such as China, the United States and a huge number of other smaller states, it is acceptable for a government to kill its people, not to save lives or benefit the country, but simply to punish their actions. I have not argued from the standpoint of legislation or the convention on human rights; although some have argued that the death penalty is unlawful on these grounds. Rather, the next time you hear about a particularly heinous crime, remember that the crime is a tragedy for all involved, and a human life is just that, irrespective of what they are guilty of.


Image used under creative commons licence

James Routledge 2016