Death penalty won’t checkmate crime

Yet available evidence suggests that the death penalty is not a deterrent in itself, and that in those countries that do execute those convicted of capital crimes, it tends to be the poor murderers, rather than the rich murderers, who are executed. A first class lawyer can usually find the necessary extenuating circumstances or negotiate a deal that might well condemn his client to a very long term behind bars, but literally saves his neck.

The only moral reason for ever supporting the death penalty is as a deterrent. Otherwise it is just retribution, and killing a criminal puts society in the same moral sphere as that criminal, accepting the proposition that killing someone can solve a problem.

This is not to say that a murderer should not be sentenced harshly. By killing someone for personal gain, or just to remove someone whose presence is inconvenient, a murderer has forfeited his right to belong to society. The alternative punishment, of a life sentence without the possibility of release or parole, would show that society will simply not tolerate murder. Society does not have to take the next step and kill the killer.

What does deter murder, and Southern Africa has produced a lot of evidence in this regard, is the almost total certainty of discovery, arrest, conviction and a very long sentence.

Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia are all neighbours of South Africa, and Zimbabwe has those big cities and gangs of armed robbers that tend to push up murder rates. Yet all three have very few murders. Almost all unlawful killings in these three countries are manslaughter or culpable homicide, different names for the same crime depending on the legal system used.

Drunks beat each other up, and one dies. A husband assaults his wife, and hits her so hard that she dies. But in neither case was death intended and the vast bulk of such cases are solved as they are reported, when some drunk or a very sad husband walks into a police station and tells the police what he did.

The deliberate killing is rare in all three because a murder immediately mobilises a crack team of detectives who hunt down the killer, and almost always get their man. Even in Zimbabwe, the most heavily populated of the three, there are no more than one or two unsolved murders a year.

The story is different in South Africa. The arrest and conviction rate is much, much lower and far too many killers are never caught. There are thousands of people in South Africa who have got away with murder, and that encourages others to kill when it seems the most convenient thing to do.

What South Africa has to do is to take murder far more seriously, not by hanging a minority of murderers, but by ensuring that all murderers are arrested and convicted. This will require a huge, and expensive, short-term effort that can be reduced as the murder rate decreases.

The other element in ensuring that murder rates are low, and violent crime is kept to minimum levels, is to ensure that sentences for non-violent and violent crime are significantly different.

If a thief knows that being caught will get him 10 years if he does not use a weapon, and 12 years if he does, the temptation to use a weapon to maximize gains and minimize the chance of being arrested is there.

But if a thief gets, say, seven years without violence and 21 years with violence, then there is a positive reason for not carrying a weapon. The Zimbabwean experience suggests that such a gap, plus a far greater police effort in hunting down violent criminals, can do the trick.

At the beginning of this year there were about three gangs operating in Harare, hijacking vehicles, committing armed robbery and, in the case of one gang, raping their female victims.

A first class police effort, resulting in a couple of shoot-outs, collared the bulk of these gangs and for the last six months there have been no armed robberies or hijackings in the city, although non-violent burglaries and petty theft have hardly diminished.

Most of the gang members are already serving sentences of 15 years and upwards, with more years to come as they are brought back to court periodically for other violent crimes. The criminal justice system usually saw them convicted of the easiest crime to prove, to get them into jail, and then more leisurely assembles the evidence for other crimes.

We believe that death penalties are not a deterrent, unless most killer criminals are caught, and if there is that sort of successful police work, then very long prison sentences are just as effective.

November 2006
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