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Today I got involved in an online discussion about a proposal to change sentencing rules in the UK for capital crimes, and the discussion inevitably turned to capital punishment. It is no longer in force in the UK, having last been used in 1964 and formally abolished in 1998. It is still in effect in some states of the USA, with no overriding Federal guidelines, with an execution in California just last week.

What is capital punishment designed to achieve? Objections to it fall into three main categories, if I understand the situation correctly:

  1. inhumane – can the death penalty, or life on death row, be classed as “cruel and unusual punishment”?
  2. immoral – it can be perceived as revenge, and do we have the right to exact vengeance?
  3. ineffective – is it a real deterrent to crime?

Today’s discussion focused on the third of these, and I have a problem with the this argument. In my view, the death penalty is so rarely used, and so badly implemented when it is handed down in the USA, that I would not trust any statistics based on the way it is currently used. These are the statistics used to justify the “ineffectiveness” objection.

There was an interesting book a few years ago called Freakonomics, which used economic tools to analyse the statistics of real-world situations, which made interesting reading. One section was on the economics of the drug industry, as an alternative economic and social model with its own risks and rewards. It is a very pyramidal model, with a lot of people making just a little money, and a few at the top raking it in, which leads to some violence as people attempt to move up the ladder – yet not as much as you might think.

But the most discussed section of the book was an attempt to explain an unexpected drop in crime levels in the USA in the 1990s, against the expected trend. After accounting for all kinds of social factors, the authors concluded that there were fewer criminals around, and linked this to the legalization of abortion in 1973. This is obviously controversial, and has been attacked several times, but the authors are sticking to their guns e.g. here.

My interpretation of this is: the USA has a huge prison population, increasing all the time, and it’s not deterring anyone from committing a crime, while the “death penalty” in the drug trade’s social model is at least partly working. A simple change in socio-economic circumstances, of the poorest segment of the population, leads to a reduction in crime. That’s a long-term view we can work on – but what do we do now?

I generally accept the Bell Curve model of society – which doesn’t mean that there is nothing that can be done, since other factors clearly play a role. I just mention this here to highlight that intelligence plays a factor in the numbers of criminals in society. The media skews our perception of crime, focusing on glamorous crimes, not reporting the majority of stupid crimes committed by stupid people (unless you watch Cops, which we don’t get over here any more. These are the people languishing in prison, less likely to grasp subtle concepts like the idea of “prison as rehabilitation”.

What is it going to take to get the “murder is wrong” message to shine through the fog of low intelligence, passion, or substances (drugs & alcohol)? Where’s the “big stick” to beat the message into their skulls that will prevent these crimes? I don’t see any government even looking in this direction, so I expect nothing to change.

Written by brian t

December 21, 2005 at 7:04 pm

Posted in philosophy

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