Sunday, June 17, 2007

'Studies spark fresh death-penalty debate'

An article from Associated Press on a renewed death-penalty debate, in the Nation of June 16, alludes to recent research which claims that between 3 and 18 lives would be saved by the execution of each convicted killer. This is a curious statement. The death penalty and the sociology of crime are very complex questions which do not lead to simple conclusions. An investigation resulting in a numerical conclusion which ranges over a factor of 6 indicates a huge imprecision and complexity.

This is indeed the case in the present studies, where the equation used to predict the homicide rate contains six different factors which would influence the total. However, when we examine the data used as input for these factors we find that the variation, standard deviation or, in simple terms, error, is 3 to 4 times greater than the data figure itself. This is particularly true of the execution rate which is considered the crucial factor in deterring homicide. There is no doubt that such studies are of interest and indicate paths to combat homicide. But an author quoted in the Associated Press article warns at the conclusion that ‘a stand for or against capital punishment should be taken with caution’ (Naci Mocan)

One must go further and assert that the conclusions of the article should not influence at all a stand for or against capital punishment. The pivotal article of Mocan referred to above begins with the words ‘Empirical studies of the economics of crime have established credible evidence regarding the impact of sanctions on criminal activity’. The study is an empirical study in the economics of crime. The decision to abolish the death penalty is a moral decision which recognises the inviolability of human life. Capital punishment is no longer an option as a deterrent against crime, as is now recognised in the majority of the world’s nations and by the moral leadership of the UN. To make the argument clear, we might agree that the public stoning to death of an adulterous woman might be a most effective deterrent to adultery, or the amputation of one or both hands be a powerful deterrent of theft. But no amount of juggling with figures from the economics of crime would make such barbaric punishment acceptable in civilised countries.

What then are we to make of the studies on Mocan and his fellow economists? The studies are indeed useful. If we omit from his equation the variables relating to execution and insert variables which include crime rates such as lack of education, alcoholism, and poverty etc. we have a most useful tool to compensate any increase in homicide rate that might arise from a decrease in deterrence. This kind of study is of course the product of US culture where economic thinking dominates any other, and where the loss of human life is considered a collateral issue, an unavoidable cost to be tolerated in national and foreign affairs. I believe that the study in its present form would not be applicable in a society where the free availability of firearms did not facilitate the commission of murder. The methodology of the study is also too coarse a tool to estimate the long term cultural change brought about by the increase in respect for life which inevitably results from abolition of the death penalty. In terms of use of the death penalty, the US remains in the company of China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, pariah states where respect for human rights can hardly flourish when the most basic right of all is not guaranteed.

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