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Death penalty: Why not?

Various legislators are once again reviving the move to restore capital punishment, aka the death penalty, widely seen as catering to the wishes of the current occupant of Malacañang. Not a few believe it’s already being practiced by this administration, albeit extrajudicially, and that restoring the death penalty aims to deodorize the thousands of drug-related killings perpetrated by enforcers of the law, and worse, could further abet it.

This is not the first time I’m writing on the topic, and given the moves in Congress, it’s well worth revisiting why precious legislative time should not be wasted on it. I will not expound on why it has no place in a predominantly Catholic country, and how incongruous it would be for the estimated 81 percent of Filipinos of this faith to allow a handful of legislators to thwart a basic Catholic doctrine. For those lawmakers and others who do not share that faith, or those who claim they do but don’t know or care enough to uphold it, we can simply look at the practical arguments why the death penalty finds no real justification. It boils down to the question: Is it worth it?

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To its proponents, the death penalty’s appeal lies in its perceived deterrent effect, believing that severity of punishment is what convinces people not to commit a crime. Yet countless studies in the fields of psychology, sociology and criminology have established that certainty of punishment, rather than severity of it, is the decisive crime deterrent. Focusing on the penalty is barking up the wrong tree. Lawmakers should train their focus instead on fixing law enforcement and the judicial system, and find creative legislation to ensure that crime elicits swift, severe, consistent and certain punishment.

The Capital Punishment Research Project in the United States found that murders in specific states did not decline upon imposition of the death penalty, while relative incidence of murders did not vary significantly between states with capital punishment and those without. Here at home, restoration of executions in 1999 was actually accompanied by a 15.3-percent rise in national crime volume (to 82,538 recorded crimes from 71,527 in the previous year). There are similar examples in Europe and elsewhere, all showing that historical experience suggests that the death penalty does not reduce criminality.

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Economists like to assess benefits against costs. Expected benefits from having the death penalty include deterrence (although questionable), reduced crowding in prisons, savings on costs of sustaining life-termers, and indirect benefits on the rest of society. Costs would include expenses incurred in
the investigation, legal and judicial process including trial, sentencing, appeal and execution itself; various opportunity costs like foregone output of convicts (from prison labor), and from the time spent by all involved in the legal processes; and the cost of the possibility of executing the innocent.

US studies have found that the death penalty is a great fiscal burden not worth assuming. No similar economic cost-benefit assessment on the death penalty appears to have been done in the Philippine setting, but then, most of us probably feel that the death penalty was never an economic question to begin with.

Psychological studies have shown that the biggest cost may yet be on the families of victims themselves. Researchers have found that the protracted legal processes before executions finally occur tend to exact a heavier toll of pain and anguish on them. On the other hand, life terms are meted out relatively more swiftly, and observed to have led to faster closure, and even forgiveness.

Blogger Matthew Chapman put it aptly: “The death penalty keeps rage alive at the expense of acceptance, peace… When the execution happens, another life ends, but nothing is won, nothing changes. The victim is brought back to life only in the sense that memories of the worst part of his or her life — the horror of its end — are dredged up again. Years have gone by, but only now — with this nasty resolution behind them — does the grieving process finally begin.”

So I return to the question: Is the death penalty really worth it?

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TAGS: capital punishment, Capital Punishment Research Project, Cielito F. Habito, death penalty, No Free Lunch
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