Can we ever rightfully condemn a person to death? It is a question that has plagued humans and our societies since our moralities first developed in the faded ages of antiquity. The use of capital punishment is interwoven so closely within our histories that the first use of laws defining which crimes deserved execution can be found as far back as King Hammurabi’s 18th Century B.C. Babylon. Without a shadow of a doubt, the scholars of the past fought and disputed and inquired about whether or not the policy was ethical even then. If there is one thing that never changes over time, it is human nature.
In an op-ed about the death penalty, fellow Affinity writer Vedika Bhaumik argues that “society has an obligation to kill [criminals] because of the horrific nature of the crimes” and draws notice to felonies such as murder and molesting a child. Through capital execution, they state, “the victim/victim’s family gets justice.”
I, however, would disagree. No nation has any obligation to kill their unlawful inhabitants—in fact, the opposite is true. States have the obligation to ensure that their justice involves “no torture, inhuman or degrading treatment” and follows the concrete-set Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Perhaps one of the most important elements of that United Nations resolution is its simplest, Article 3. The article reads “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Surely the implication of this is that the death penalty, a punishment that is essentially the termination and deposition of a life, is by its nature against the fundamental human rights that each person possesses through life.
I understand Bhaumik when they say “if they [a criminal] take away a person’s life, then I believe that it is not rightful that [the criminal] keeps their own life.” I understand it as a human, because it resonates through the back of my mind and through my very being. I understand it as someone who has loved and who has lost. I do not claim to know how it feels to have the life of a loved one stolen away from me in sudden and cold-blooded murder, nor to have been the victim subjected to an equally vicious and repulsive crime, yet I understand. However, I do not believe that retribution is going to solve any issues. I do not believe that revenge has any place in modern justice.
The Old Testament, the foundation of the Abrahamic religions and cultures that so prominently continue to have influence on this world, teaches retribution simply with “an eye for an eye.” Let us remember, however, that the same compilation of supposedly sacred texts teaches that you should not wear clothing made of two different interwoven materials, instructs you not to touch a woman on her period and features a God that commits genocide, orders the death of babies and turned a woman to salt for simply looking at a condemned city. Let it be understood that I do not attempt to mock or criticize the follower of any religion, I only wish to show that the belief in an “eye for an eye” (a phrase that Trump loves, as it happens) can easily be disregarded as outdated and irrelevant. Even Jesus, in the New Testament, disagrees with the notion.
Bhaumik claims that “death penalties serve as a crime deterrent to others.” There is no evidence, however, to prove this and so the claim is an ‘Ad Ignoratum’ logical fallacy—claiming that something is true because it has not or cannot be proven false. Consider Hitchens’ razor, the burden of proof regarding the truthfulness of a claim lies with the one who makes the claim. Furthermore, a 2009 study resolved that 88% of the top criminologists in the U.S. believed that the death penalty does not act as a deterrence to homicide.
Another flawed reason of Bhaumik’s is that the death penalty frees up resources in prison systems that would be otherwise occupied in the containment of inmates. Fiscally, this is incorrect. Amnesty International has a whole page of information and statistics that prove that life imprisonment would be a cheaper policy. Removing the death penalty in California, for instance, would reduce the cost of the legal system from $137 million a year to $11.5 million annually. Whilst this sounds too good to be true, the legal proceedings and trials that are required to condemn a human being to death are extremely extensive. Worst of all, a study has concluded that 1 in 25 of these trials reach the wrong result and so 1 in 25 people are wrongly executed. How is this accepted in a modern, developed country? The implications of this study are that many innocent people have had their lives ended for crimes they did not commit. Can we really live with that guilt placed on our societies?
I am British and our country has not had capital punishment since the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, which was finally enacted in 1969. In my eyes, I cannot help but see it as barbaric and backwards (remember that the history of my nation is filled with terrible and grisly executions such as being burned alive and being hung, drawn and quartered) and whilst Bhaumik believes that criminals convicted of terrible crimes “do not deserve to have a second chance in life,” I vehemently disagree. In truth, I strongly thank Bhaumik for their excellent opinion article as it has caused my thoughts regarding such affairs to resurface and has certainly done the same for countless others. It has cemented, in my mind at least, my belief that the death penalty has no place in my society. I, for one, believe in the benefits of rehabilitation. Look at Norway’s prison system, for example. With its focus on rehabilitation, good conditions and treating its inmates with humanity and respect, it has extremely low rates of recidivism. On the other hand, the U.S. has one of the worst re-offending rates in the world, as 68% of prisoners released are arrested again within three years. Surely this is a flaw in the prison system, which does not teach people how to integrate back into their societies, but instead subjects them to mistreatment and poor conditions. Yes, the prisons in the U.K. are not beautiful penthouse apartments, yet they seem luxury compared the conditions we see in jail cells across the pond.
The U.S. is the only G7 country to still execute people. Last year, the country was amongst China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen in the top five states that had executed the most people. Those four other states, all of which are antagonized and criticized within the U.S., should serve as a wake-up call. Americans should see this and remorse about the nations it is being compared to in the world – and contemplate what their country could become. Many U.S. citizens are not even aware that their policy is in the minority, as five times as many countries do not execute prisoners as those who do. We must also remember that the United States has the highest prison population in the world, at 2,145,100 people. This amounts to 1 in every 140 citizens and the number of prisoners exceeds China by almost 500,000, despite only having a fraction of the population.
Clearly, there is an issue with the U.S. prison and justice system, one that affects all of us. However, there is a solution and countries like Norway are showing the way. So, in my eyes, it is time for America to distance itself from Iran and North Korea. It is time for the state to steer in the direction of the happiest nations in the world, the liberal paradises that preach rehabilitation and fight hate with love, not with revenge. It is not the time for holding on to an antiquated system of execution and death, but time for a brighter future.
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