Death Penalties: A Comparative Analysis

Anya Wilson, St. Mary's College Arklow

Critically compare the use of the death penalty in Ireland, where it is banned, with at least one other jurisdiction in which it is applied

 

“Off with his head!” A phrase now used as a light-hearted form of reproach, but was once meant literally. Often the catchphrase of famous formidable rulers in literature, from Queen Margaret in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, to Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, it heralds the ultimate punishment. But when you look deeper into these monarchs and the people they presided over, you must ask yourself, to whom did the execution do more damage, the sinner or society? In this essay, I will compare Ireland with Belarus, California and the U.S. as a whole, and evaluate some of the wider implications of deciding whether or not to authorise a license to kill.

 

First, it is vital to examine some of the reasons why a state chooses to enforce or abolish capital punishment. America is the last remaining country in the rich western world to impose the death penalty and fifty four percent of Americans are in favour, simply because they want to feel safe in their own country.[1] After all, that is their right as a citizen and as a human. They can rest assured that their government is willing to eliminate any serial killers for whom they may be the next victim. Ultimately, it would be a fundamental failure of any government if their citizens felt at risk under their jurisdiction. We do not apply the death penalty in Ireland but it seems that we are content with this, as fifty nine percent of people are not in favour of this extreme sanction.[2] Hence, when arguing over this hot topic, it is imperative to remember that like every constitutional law, the death penalty is the personal preference and sovereign choice of a democratic nation, the same as abortion, the same as euthanasia or even gun laws. It is a moral question of society, and you cannot fault a people for their opinion.

 

The burning question is, does the death penalty deter crime, for that, in essence, is its purpose, right? Whatever a state’s motive for using the death penalty is, it cannot be denied that one of its functions is to display a zero-tolerance approach on crime. In theory, the prospect of certain death would stop anyone in their tracks before committing murder, however, research shows otherwise. According to the UN global study on homicide, Ireland’s annual homicide rate is 0.9 per 100,000 people which is below European average.[3] In comparison, Belarus, who do have the death penalty, have a homicide rate of 2.4 per 100,000 people.[4] All circumstances aside, the death penalty was not the “quick fix solution” Belarus required to eliminate murder. The reason for this is plain. The longer a severe punishment is in place, the less impact the fear factor carries. Since the 14th century,[5] the effect of the initial increase in severity has faded, and criminals are now desensitised to the threat of death.

 

Which is why, in fact, circumstances are key. Generally, the rate of murder of a country is a clear reflection of the condition their society is in. A study by Dr Morrall for crimeandjustice.org.uk reveals that “it is society, rather than individuals that propagates violence”. If we look at Irish society, we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe,[6] public healthcare, a reliable system of social welfare. In addition, a relatively low crime rate in stark contrast to America’s astonishing violent crime rate of 379 per 100,000 people.[7] They also have no universal healthcare[8] and a finite unemployment benefit of 26 weeks.[9] This blatant begs the question, does an uncared-for society commit more crime? And does the method of dealing with this crime reflect the mindset of the community being punished? Unfortunately, solving the issue of crime takes much more effort than administering a lethal injection. I mean, why would you bother introducing a scheme to reduce the high school drop-out rate when you can sentence people to death and call it “tackling crime”?

 

Finally, whether you consider the death penalty a matter of morality, or a policy predicament, it is, at the end of the day, a state programme like any other. Hence, there are costs involved. Steep costs. Trials require extra time for both conviction and sentencing, there are more investigative costs incurred and death penalty trials are consistently appealed and appealed again. The estimated annual cost for the Californian legal system is 137 million dollars. But a system where life without parole is the worst punishment would cost them only 11.5 million a year.[10] If we look at what Ireland spent in 2019 on the justice sector, 2.89 billion euros, every single penny of this went towards improvement of our justice system. This included forensic science and ICT developments, increase in funding for the Legal Aid Board and even funding for equality and LGBTI+ initiatives.[11] California chooses to spend an extortionate amount of money to argue over a criminal’s life while in Ireland, we save on those costs and dedicate our taxpayers’ money to making the country safer.

 

I would like to preface my conclusion by recalling my first point. The decision on whether to apply the death penalty is a moral quandary. There is no right or wrong answer, only a vast range of opinions and the solution that works best for each individual state. However, I have also determined that the death penalty does not deter crime. It is merely a reflection of the deeper troubles of society and we have no need for this reflection in Ireland. Finally, in choosing not to execute, we save volumes of public spending which are put to effective use elsewhere. Under Irish Brehon Law, capital punishment was never used to atone a homicide.[12] Thus, for Irish people, it has never been part of our history, culture or identity. We have an unwavering moral code of dignity and clemency and, I believe, we are better for it.

 

[1] Pewresearch.org, 2018

[2] The Journal.ie, 2016

[3] Irishtimes.com, 2019

[4] Data.worldbank.org

[5] Rbth.com, 2019

[6] Statista.com, 2020

[7] Pewresearch.org, 2019

[8] Medical.mit.edu

[9] Socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu

[10] Amnestyuse.org, 2017

[11] Justice.ie, 2018

[12] Oireachtas.ie

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