Copyright © Dale Heslin 2000

Opponents of capital punishment assert that the death penalty does not deter crime. This claim is put across as established fact. In truth, it is ideologically motivated dogma. The argument runs as follows: in places where the death penalty has been abolished, murder rates do not rise; conclusion: capital punishment has no effect on crime. At this point we should ask: are we talking about the death penalty actually being implemented, or merely a provision on the statute books which is never, or hardly ever, put into practice? Just what percentage of convicted murderers were actually executed in these countries? Whatever the percentage, it will be merely a tiny fraction of convicted criminals. Herein lies the ultimate fallacy of the anti-capital punishment argument. If only 2% of convicted murderers face execution this means that there is practically no chance that a criminal deliberately and cold-bloodedly killing someone will face death - assuming they are caught! What deterrent value is there in that?

Consider the following. The last man hanged in Australia was in 1967. The previous execution (in Victoria) was in the 1950’s. Note that murder rates in Australia were about 150 a year over that period; increasing to over 200 a year from the late 1960’s on. This tiny number of executions over several decades bears no comparison with murder rates per year. This is the so-called "deterrence factor" which has failed to reduce crime levels! This reasoning would insult the intelligence of a primary school student!

Even in the grim past, the death penalty was infrequently and inconsistently applied. In 1786 for example of 1325 persons convicted of serious offences in England, a mere 62 were executed [1]. In 1785 the figure was 96 people hanged. Forty years later the figure was 50 persons hanged.

Australian figures show a similar downward trend. Even in the darkest days of Port Arthur and Norfolk Island, in the early years of last century, the execution rate was about 30 a year [2]. By the middle of the 19th century the figure had dropped to between 10 and 20 a year. The average for the second half of the century was around 10 a year. By the 20th century we have the princely figure of 114 persons executed in Australia for the entire century! [3] This is not even half the current murder rate for a single year! This is the "deterrent" factor which we are told "has not worked"! Of course it hasn’t worked, on this pathetic level of retribution. A system of retributive punishment would deter crime, where punishment is consistently meted out on all occasions, and seen to be applied.

Just what have been the fruits of the non-capital punishment philosophy? It is not as if crime rates have fallen dramatically since Ronald Ryan was hanged in 1967 with the application of liberal criminal justice policies. Our murder rate is still well over 300 a year. What is supposed to happen? Are criminals supposed to become magically more caring and humane in view of our "enlightened" penal policies? This is the logical extension of the argument. Needless to say this has not happened, and there is no reason to think it ever will.

The United States has already gone down the path of abolition of the death penalty. In 1972 capital punishment was held by the Supreme Court to be "unconstitutional". By 1976 capital punishment was back in vogue. Liberal crime policies had simply failed. It should be borne in mind that opinion polls show that a clear majority of the population consistently supports the death penalty (UK, 70% support in 1990 [4]; US, 86% support in 1988 [5]). In the case of Great Britain, Parliament overwhelmingly voted against the re-introduction of capital punishment in the same year - completely flying in the face of public opinion! [6] If we want politicians with moral convictions we must first vote them into power!

The standard counter-argument to capital punishment is that we might execute an innocent person. However, retributive punishment consistently carried out would surely deter at least a significant number of our 300 murders each year. These are innocent people as well. Three hundred murders a year is 300 murders too many! The death penalty would save many more innocent people than those unjustly executed. After all, we have not abolished automobiles even though they result in the deaths of thousands of Australians each year. Nor have we banned Jumbo Jets even though air crashes kill hundreds worldwide on a regular basis. Surely the machinery of criminal justice is at least as valuable to our society as automobiles and Jumbo Jets.

One more point needs to be made. The most vocal opponents of capital punishment are almost without exception the most ardent supporters of abortion on demand. The result is the murder of millions of (innocent) unborn babies every year worldwide – by their own mothers be it noted! For those who will agonise about wrongly executing just one innocent person, this fact appears to provoke not even the slightest degree of handwringing moral anguish.

This grievous paradox makes one wonder about what murky motivations are at work amongst our supposedly ‘enlightened’ and ‘progressive' thinkers.

[1] Paper on sentencing by Magistrate Michael Ward, ACT Bar CLE Conference, Wollongong, 1989
[2] Sourcebook of Australian Criminal & Social Statistics 1804-1988, AIC, 1988
[3] Law Society Journal, May 1987: 50
[4] Canberra Times 17 Dec.1990
[5] Encounter, Mar.1988: 63
[6] Canberra Times 19 Dec.1990: 7

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