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Argument: The death penalty deters crime if it is a certainty

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"Thoughts on the death penalty". Retrieved May 1, 2008 - "Deterrence. Does the death penalty deter? It is hard to prove one way or the other because in most retentionist countries the number of people actually executed per year (as compared to those sentenced to death) is usually a very small proportion. It would, however, seem that in those countries (e.g. Singapore) which almost always carry out death sentences, there is generally far less serious crime. This tends to indicate that the death penalty is a deterrent, but only where execution is an absolute certainty.

Anti-death penalty campaigners always argue that death is not a deterrent and usually site studies based upon American states to prove their point. This is, in my view, flawed and probably chosen to be deliberately misleading. Let us examine the situation in 3 countries.

Britain. The rates for unlawful killings in Britain have more than doubled since abolition of capital punishment in 1964 from 0.68 per 100,000 of the population to 1 .42 per 100,000. Home Office figures show around unlawful killings 300 in 1964, which rose to 565 in 1994 and 833 in 2004. . The figure for homicides in 2007 was 734. The principal methods of homicide were fights involving fists and feet, poisoning, strangling, firearms, stabbing and cutting by glass or a broken bottle. 72% of the victims were male with young men being most at risk. Convictions for the actual crime of murder (as against manslaughter and other unlawful killings) have been rising inexorably. Between 1900 and 1965 they ran at an average of 29 per year. There were 57 in 1965 – the first year of abolition. Ten years later the total for the year was 107 which rose to 173 by 1985 and 214 in 1995. The figure for 2005 is 280. There have been 71 murders committed by people who have been released after serving "life sentences" in the period between 1965 and 1998 according to Home Office statistics. Some 6,300 people are currently serving sentences of “life in prison” for murder. Statistics were kept for the 5 years that capital punishment was suspended in Britain (1965-1969) and these showed a 125% rise in murders that would have attracted a death sentence. Whilst statistically all this is true, it does not tell one how society has changed over nearly 40 years. It may well be that the murder rate would be the same today if we had retained and continued to use the death penalty. It is impossible to say that only this one factor affects the murder rate. Easier divorce has greatly reduced the number of domestic murders, unavailability of poisons has seen poisoning become almost extinct whilst tight gun control had begun to reduce the number of shootings, however, drug related gun crime is on the increase and there have been a spate of child murders recently. Stabbings have increased dramatically as have the kicking and beating to death of people who have done something as minor as arguing with someone or jostling them in a crowd, i.e. vicious and virtually motiveless killings. As in most Western countries, greatly improved medical techniques have saved many victims who would have previously died from their injuries (e.g. Josie Russell). Careful analysis of the situation in Britain between 1900 and the outbreak of the second World War in 1939 seems to point to the death penalty being a strong deterrent to what one might call criminal murders, i.e. those committed in the furtherance of theft, but a very poor deterrent to domestic murders, i.e. those committed in the heat of the moment. A very large proportion of the victims of those hanged during this period were wives and girlfriends, with a small number of husbands and boyfriends. So where a crime was thought about in advance the criminal had time to consider the consequences of their action and plan differently. For instance they may decide to rob a bank at the weekend to avoid coming into contact with the staff and to do so without carrying firearms.

America. In most states, other than Texas, the number of executions as compared to death sentences and murders is infinitesimally small. Of the 1099 executions carried out in the whole of the USA from 1977 to the end of 2007, Texas accounts for 405 or 37%. Interestingly, the murder rate in the U.S. dropped from 24,562 in 1993 to 18,209 in 1997, the lowest for years (a 26% reduction) - during a period of increased use of the death penalty. 311 (62%) of the 500 executions have been carried out in this period. The number of murders in 2003 was about 15,600. America still had 5 times as many murders per head of population as did Britain in 1997 whilst Singapore had 15 times fewer murders per head of population than Britain. How can one account for this? There are obvious cultural differences between the 3 countries although all are modern and prosperous. It is dangerously simplistic to say that the rise in executions is the only factor in the reduction of homicides in America. There has been a general trend to a more punitive society, (e.g. the "three strikes and your out" law) over this period and cities such as New York claim great success in reducing crime rates through the use of "zero tolerance" policing policies. But otherwise, there has been political and economic stability over the period and no obvious social changes. Improvements in medical techniques have also saved many potential deaths. Various recent academic studies in the USA have shown that capital punishment is a deterrent there. For details of these go to

Texas. As stated above, Texas carries out far more executions than any other American state (between 1982 and 2007 it executed 404 men and 2 women) and there is now clear evidence of a deterrent effect. My friend Rob Gallagher (author of Before the Needles website) has done an analysis of the situation using official FBI homicide figures. Between 1980 and 2000, there were 41,783 murders in Texas In 1980 alone, 2,392 people died by homicide, giving it a murder rate of 16.88 for every 100,000 of the population. (The U.S. average murder rate in 1980 was 10.22, falling to 5.51 per 100,000 by the year 2000. Over the same period, Texas had a population increase of 32%, up 6,681,991 from 14,169,829 to 20,851,820. There were only 1,238 murders in 2000 giving it a rate of 5.94, just slightly higher than the national rate which had dropped to 5.51/100,000. In the base year (1980), there was one murder for every 5,924 Texans. By the year 2000, this had fallen to one murder for every 16,843 people or 35.2% of the 1980 value. If the 1980 murder rate had been allowed to maintain, there would have been, by interpolation, a total of 61,751 murders. On this basis, 19,968 people are not dead today who would have potentially been homicide victims, representing 78 lives saved for each one of the 256 executions. The overall U.S. murder rate declined by 54% during the period. Therefore, to achieve a reasonable estimate of actual lives saved, we must multiply 19,968 by 0.54 giving a more realistic figure of 10,783 lives saved or 42 lives per execution. Even if this estimate was off by a factor of 10 (which is highly unlikely), there would still be over 1,000 innocent lives saved or 4 lives per execution. One can see a drop in the number of murders in 1983, the year after Charlie Brooks became the first person to be executed by lethal injection in America. In 2000, Texas had 1,238 murders (an average of 23.8 murders per week), but in 2001 only 31 people were given the death sentence and 17 prisoners executed (down from 40 the previous year). This equates to a capital sentencing rate of 2.5% or one death sentence for every 40 murders.

Singapore. Singapore always carries out death sentences where the appeal has been turned down, so its population knows precisely what will happen to them if they are convicted of murder or drug trafficking - is this concept deeply embedded into the sub-consciousness of most of its people, acting as an effective deterrent? In 1995, Singapore hanged an unusually large number of 7 murderers with 4 in 1996, 3 in 1997 and only one in 1998 rising to 6 in 1999 (3 for the same murder). Singapore takes an equally hard line on all other forms of crime with stiff on the spot fines for trivial offences such as dropping litter and chewing gum in the street, caning for males between 18 and 50 for a wide variety of offences, and rigorous imprisonment for all serious crimes."

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