Some data on capital punishment from Amnesty International:
“In 2007, at least 1,252 people were executed in 24 countries and at least 3,347 people were sentenced to death in 51 countries. Up to 27,500 people are estimated to be on death row across the world. But many more were killed by the state, in secret, in countries including China, Mongolia and Viet Nam.
The figures also show an increase in executions in a number of countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Eighty-eight per cent of all known executions took place in five countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the USA. Saudi Arabia had the highest number of executions per capita, followed by Iran and Libya. Amnesty International has been able to confirm at least 470 executions by China – the highest overall figure. However, the organization has said that the true figure for China is undoubtedly much higher.”
The following chart shows the number and methods of executions in the US (there was a Supreme Court enforced moratorium in the sixties and seventies):
I’ve argued elsewhere against capital punishment. In a few words my argument comes down to this.
Arguments against capital punishment
- Capital punishment, or better the death penalty, is obviously a human rights violation. Article 5 of the Universal Declaration states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Killing someone, and announcing the date of someone’s death, is clearly cruel, inhuman and degrading. Article 3 gives everyone the right to life, Furthermore, by taking away someone’s life, you make it impossible for this person to enjoy rights.
- Capital punishment brutalizes society. It legitimizes extreme violence. The brutalizing effect of the death penalty may even be responsible for increasing the number of murders.
- Miscarriages of justices are impossible to correct since the death penalty is irreversible.
- It makes it impossible for the perpetrator to redeem and rehabilitate himself or herself.
- There is obvious race discrimination in the application of the death penalty in many countries.
- Capital punishment has often been misused politically to silence opposition to dictatorial regimes.
- The argument of deterrence fails because you are using one person’s life to save another (namely the future possible victim of another possible murderer who may be convinced not to murder when contemplating the fate of the current, executed murderer who has no relationship at all either the future victim or future murderer). Such an instrumentalization of human life is unacceptable. For the deterrence argument, even the mistaken execution of innocents is justified because this as well may help to deter murderers.
It is difficult to conclusively demonstrate the existence or non-existence of a deterrence effect because correlations unearthed (or not) in statistical analysis do not imply causation. Those who refrain from committing crimes due to the deterrent effect of the death penalty will by definition never show up in any statistic.
This Amnesty International graph shows that murder rates in US states that apply the death penalty are higher than the rates in other states.
So this would indicate that deterrence doesn’t work. But we can only be sure of this when the death penalty will no longer be applied for many years to come in the states which apply it currently, and when the murder rate after abolition doesn’t go up. But even if all this happens, this can be the result of other causes.
This other graph points in the opposite direction:
So the deterrent effect of capital punishment is not only morally unacceptable, but it is also factually unprovable. It seems wrong to base such an important decision as the taking of a life on arguments that are impossible to prove and morally suspect. Therefore, people turn to incapacitation, a more limited version of the deterrent argument: at least capital punishment “deters” the murderer who is executed from committing future crimes. However, life sentences would amount to the same result.