Sunday, February 18, 2018

Death sentencing: the expedient non-solution

In the 2009 survey of leading US criminologists published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Crimonology, 88% of that nation's top criminologists do not believe that the death penalty is a more effective deterrent to long-term imprisonment. This of course means that 12% believed that it did.

We love majority rule here, but majorities are often wrong. So a deeper look at the stats may be helpful.

If you look at the murder statistics across the United States from 1990-2010 you'll notice that the death penalty States do not consistently rank lower on the list—which you would expect if the death penalty did in fact act as a deterrent. In fact, we find that the States without the death penalty rank lower on the list.

Now perhaps it's hanging that makes the difference and not the death by sissy injection favoured by the Americans. But assuming that it's the threat of death (regardless of the method of sudden demise) you would expect to see a consistent and statistically significant difference in the murder rates between death penalty states and non-death penalty states. We do not see such a difference. Look for yourself.

This makes logical sense because people who commit pre-meditated murder don't plan on getting caught, and people don't think about consequences in crimes of passion.

The death penalty might make a difference if it was imposed Sharia law style, with guilt determined merely by an authority's assessment of guilt and death imposed swiftly and harshly. Nothing like a regular public Sunday execution to remind potential murderers of the consequence of their "evil" intentions.

But if we go down this route, why stop at public executions? Let's go for the public dismembering of other offenders. The cutting off hands, and penises or gouging out eyes could also greatly reduce theft, rape and adultery.

Then there's the moral argument. Like a parent who smokes admonishing his/her child not to smoke, there is moral inconsistency in supporting the death penalty. Basically what we are in effect saying is that murder is justified under certain conditions, and we (the state) are the only ones that have the right to take life. So do as we say, not as we do.

One of the central tenets of a civilised and just criminal system is that it is better to let a guilty man go free than an innocent man be wrongfully imprisoned. I tend to hold that view especially since it is quite problematic to prove beyond a shadow of a death that "he's the guy."

Eye-witness reports are often not what they are made out to be, especially with the passage of time; and with witnesses who have little education, hidden or criminal agendas.

Who wins or loses often comes down to the talent and determination of the opposing sides, and the ability of a jury to think critically, be fair and impartial. Good luck with that.

If you support the death penalty, be very clear that your stance will result in the wrongful death of innocent people. What percentage, I don't know, but how many innocent deaths are you comfortable with?

Maybe it's an OK price to pay if it did result in a reduction in the murder rate but it …does …not. People commit gangland murder not because they think they won't be hung, but because they grow up in sub-cultures that believe that the only way to get what you want in life is to go out there and take it by force.

Then there's the just punishment for evil people argument. The brutal murder of a young child (like Daniel last year) makes it easy to support swift and deadly justice for the kind of person who could do such a crime. But evil people don't generally emerge from a vacuum.

We are all the products of our environment, and it is the state's job to do all it can to provide the kind of social, economic and political environments that allow it's citizens to participate and contribute in society for the welfare of themselves, their families, and the greater society.

Criminality on the scale we see in Trinidad is a symptom of a breakdown in the supporting structures of our society, a breakdown that is not the fault of the criminals, but of trusted institutions like family, education, and religion.

I would venture to say that if the reader grew up in the same circumstances as the murdering gang member, that the reader would very likely be a murdering gang member also.

It seems a bit unfair to me to hang someone because he grew up in conditions that steered him into a life of criminality. By all means imprison him to keep the rest of us safe—if that's all we really want: to be safe. But let's be honest, killing perpetrators by hanging or otherwise is not really about making us safe is it? It's about vengeance. I'd respect the discussion a bit more if people were honest about that.

Even if none of the arguments above sway you—in which case it shouldn't be on our national agenda at all—then consider where on our priority list the death penalty discussion should be placed. Dead last. Why?

Because the state of our capacities to apprehend, solve and successfully prosecute criminals are abysmal. Our police service still relies on handwritten text to log, and track crime.

This is not to throw stones at the police service or judiciary; it's just to say that there's still a lot of work for us to do here before we should waste any time even discussing government-sanctioned executions.

Kids join gangs because gangs are the closest thing to family that they have in their lives. The gang brings protection, belonging, accomplishment and maybe even love. It is truly a shame that we divert the kind of brilliant intellect available in our society towards a discussion of a barbaric practice of hanging, and away from addressing the fundamental problems causing criminality in this country.

I read that our PM is pushing a new death penalty debate because the people are calling to bring back the death penalty. I think a government should demonstrate wisdom in serving it's people, which sometimes means NOT responding to everything the people say they want, and focusing on what the people really want.

What the people really want is a Trinidad and Tobago where all citizens can pursue their own prosperity and happiness, free from threat of violence, coercion, intimidation and corruption. A death penalty contributes nothing to the prosperity, freedom, security or international standing of our country and we shouldn't be wasting our time discussing it—at least not now.

Peter Anthony Gales is a Cornell MBA with over two decades of international business and marketing experience

encompassing North America, Europe, the Far East and the Caribbean. His blog is