Putting Politics in Perspective: The Death Penalty Has No Place in a Civilised Society

The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), June 23, 2001 | Go to article overview

Putting Politics in Perspective: The Death Penalty Has No Place in a Civilised Society


Byline: Alex Kane

OVER the past few weeks, many people have addressed the problem of what form of punishment is most suitable for those who commit murder.

The problem has been highlighted by the execution of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and the ever-increasing body count attributed to Dr Harold Shipman.

The news that parole boards have agreed to the release of the killers of toddler James Bulger has also appalled a great many ordinary people.

The gut reaction of public opinion, much of it directed and exploited by right-wing tabloids, is in favour of capital punishment, particularly so for those cases involving the murder of children.

Yet, while I accept the need for severe and ongoing punishment for murderers, all of my instincts oppose the death penalty; for, however else it may be described and whatever exact purpose it may serve, I still believe that state sanctioned execution is not a punishment.

As I understand it, punishment for criminal offences, if it is to be effective, must serve a number of purposes.

It must act as a deterrent for the individual criminal and, by extension and example, serve as a deterrent for society at large.

It should be severe enough and long enough to ensure that it is not just regarded as the acceptable occupational hazard of a criminal lifestyle.

Given the fact that crime rates continue to soar, it is clear that the existing forms and scale of punishment are regarded as largely ineffective but punishment must also act as a form of justice for the victim, the victim's family and the law-abiding majority.

There is opinion poll, anecdotal and well-researched documentary evidence to support the view that many people believe we live in a violent and lawless society in which the criminal is seen to "get away with it".

Indeed, we live in a society in which criminals are glamourised by television and cinema, with figures like Ronnie Biggs and the Kray twins treated as folk heroes.

However much successive Home Secretaries may try to deny it, there is a feeling that the law is too often on the side of the guilty at the expense of the victim.

Punishment must be the cornerstone of our faith in any system of justice. Not only does society require that the guilty be punished, it also demands to be satisfied that the punishment is of a form which ensures that convicted criminals will not reoffend.

Again, the body of available statistical evidence indicates that a very high proportion of offenders return to their old habits when released.

Whether that fact is attributable to the failure of the legal/punishment system to reform and rehabilitate the criminal, the reluctance of many criminals to be reformed or the unwillingness of society at large to give those with convictions a second chance has been an issue of furious debate for decades.

Punishment must be built around the need to reform and rehabilitate criminals and make them aware that what they did was both morally wrong and socially unacceptable. …

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