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Death Penalty

Hanging not the answer

Trinidad Express editorial opinion 08 June 2005

After more than three years in office, the Manning administration has announced its intention to resume hangings. But why now? There are only two likely answers. One is that, with the murder rate spiralling out of control, the Government sees hanging as a means of containing crime. The other is that, under constant criticism for its ineffectuality, the Government wants to be seen as taking firm action against criminals. But does hanging convicted killers accomplish either of these ends?

In respect to the matter of perception, the answer is Yes. The majority of the populace supports capital punishment, so the resumption of hangings will indeed be perceived as a strong response to criminals. And, with 83 criminals on Death Row, hanging one every fortnight or so will take the Manning regime nicely into the 2007 election year. But there is a caveat which may alter perception — hanging is not firm action. Which means that the answer to the first part — whether capital punishment will be effective in reducing crime — is No.

The evidence here is clear and incontrovertible. Executing criminals has no effect on violent crime. It seems counter-intuitive since, logically, fear of death should serve as a deterrent to those who commit murder. But we are dealing here with human nature, not logic. In the case of what are called "crimes of passion," the perpetrator is too possessed by rage or despair to care about consequences. In the case of gang murders, the young men involved are clearly persons who place little value on life, including their own. Additionally, the boldness with which they carry out their criminal acts shows that they have no fear of being caught — and with a conviction rate of under 20 percent, their calculation of the odds is quite accurate.

Proponents of the death penalty, even when they admit that it is not a deterrent, still argue that retribution is sufficient reason to execute murderers. But this is an emotional argument, not a reasoned one. It is perfectly natural to want to see these callous individuals meet the same fate as their victims. But shouldn’t the authorities, and indeed the law-abiding citizens who the authorities represent, strive for a higher moral standard? To give in to our own desire for retribution is to act from the same motives as the gang members, since it appears that the daily round of murders is driven by a cycle of revenge killings.

What, then, should the Government be doing? Whipping prisoners, denying bail to repeat offenders, and bypassing preliminary inquiries, as announced by Attorney General John Jeremie, are stop-gap measures, and may even undermine our judicial system. Criminals get deterred when they think there is a high probability that they will be caught and when they know that, once apprehended, the wheels of justice turn swiftly. What the Government therefore needs to do is improve the detection and surveillance capabilities of police officers. The Government should also consider spending $850 million on revamping the Magistrates Court system, instead of building a stadium. And, since such measures will lead to more convictions, money also has to be spent to reform the prison service and to build more jail cells.

National Security Minister Martin Joseph has revealed that the vast majority of violent crimes are being committed by 500 "hardcore members" of 66 known gangs. With such exact figures at the Ministry’s disposal, effective crime-fighting measures should put these persons behind bars and so reduce crime. What won’t accomplish this is hanging those criminals who are already in jail, and the Government should therefore desist from pursuing this futile strategy.

See: TT Humanist Statement on the Death Penalty

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