By R.M.B Senanayake –
The public seems to be alarmed by the crime wave now taking place in the country as seen by recent incidence of violent crimes such as the kidnapping and killing of children which seem to be more common now than earlier. The ordinary public is demanding the implementation of the death penalty which has been suspended. It may be true that there is no evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. But public perceptions do matter in a democracy and it is better to restore or revive it at least to satisfy the public conscience.
Research has been carried out in other countries about the deterrence value of the death penalty. But we cannot extrapolate their results here. I am not aware of any similar statistical survey being done in our country and we cannot extrapolate statistical results across countries in the case of social issues . Surveys of the opinions of police chiefs abroad were also evenly split. Some though the death penalty was a deterrent but the majority though otherwise. But these results cannot be extrapolated across countries. There may be more than one cause for the increase in crime and the lack of a deterrence is only one factor.
Other areas which were cited as major problems included crowded courts and slow justice. On the other hand, ineffective prosecutions are also a factor which enables criminals to escape punishment. The death penalty may not be the deterrent that the public think. But at least it has a psychological value as it affects the perceptions of the people. The would be criminal may not take a rational count of the chances of getting caught . But he certainly has a perception of the possibility of getting caught. Perhaps we should strengthen this perception by re-introducing the death penalty.
The main objection to the death penalty is that an innocent person may be imposed such a punishment and then there is no way to correct the mistake. Yes but other factors too should be taken into account. Just as an innocent person should not face the death penalty there should be no impunity for criminals to kill people. Law enforcement officers believe that the most effective deterrent to crime is swift and sure punishment. But our dilatory legal procedures mean that the punishment even if it takes place is long after the event and in the meantime the suspect may be out on bail. Naturally the death penalty in such a case is of no deterrent value.
The death penalty by itself may not be the deterrent the public expect. But when combined with other measures such as speeding up of trials, better prosecutions and training of law enforcement officers in modern methods of detecting crimes should certainly help.
I think the Government should immediately start enforcing the death penalty. It must pay heed to public perceptions for just as there is no proof that the death penalty is an effective deterrent nor is there concrete proof that it is not a deterrent at least to some persons who are would be criminals.
In other countries when asked which societal or legal changes would have the greatest impact on reducing violent crime, police chose strengthening families and neighborhoods, along with swift and sure punishment for offenders, as the means that would bring about the most significant effects.
Police should be given more control over illicit drugs, greater latitude provided for judges in criminal cases, to hear and dispose of criminal cases speedily. The death penalty, may not be an effective deterrent by itself but when combined with other measures like speedy trials and efficient prosecutions, it is likely to be more effective on the other hand, was not thought to have a big impact on crime reduction.
Over two-thirds of the police chiefs did not believe that the death penalty significantly reduces the number of homicides. About 67% said that it was not one of the most important law enforcement tools. And well over 80% of the respondents believe that murderers do not think about the range of possible punishments before committing homicide. The figures below illustrate the lack of confidence which police chiefs place in the death penalty as a deterrent.