7 Nov 2005

Death Penalty 101

This is really for the benefit of those who are still sitting on the fence or pro-death penalty. Many do not seem well-informed about the statistical nature of the death penalty and while information currently released by the Ministry of Home Affairs (compiled and reported by Amnesty International, 'The death penalty; a hidden toll of executions') is not entirely transparent and published in its entirety to the public, an important observation can still be made which downplays what government officials tend to claim when defending the death penalty; its effectiveness.

As I mentioned in past comments, the debate over the death penalty can generally be fought on two grounds:

1) Ethical reasons.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty worldwide in all cases without exception. The death penalty is a violation of one of the most fundamental of human rights: the right to life. It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. There is no escaping the risk of error which can lead to the execution of an innocent of an innocent person.

- Continue reading the full report.

I suspect that people's ethical reasons for or against the death penalty are as diverse as religion itself. I wish to focus however on point 2 but I will reiterate this from the Amnesty report; that the death penalty, no matter how efficient, is not a fail-safe penalty like any other but shares one distinct and unique difference. It cannot be rectified should the convicted person be found innocent at a later time, whether it's 1 year or one decade later. History does show that people have been released from prison after serving up to decades of their lives in captivity after being cleared of a crime, usually when new evidence surfaces later on. And it will be these people that ultimately pay the price of life for the death penalty. Even with modern forensic techniques, science is is still a fallible process. The legal system is a fallible process. And it would be a grave mistake to assume we have a 100% efficient forensic and legal system.

2) The efficiency of the death penalty.

Admittedly, the lack of information released by the government is a double-edged sword. But it is helpful in downplaying what officials are so haste to claim for which they have no supporting evidence of. The Amnesty report shows the official execution rates between 1991 - 2003. The total number of executions between 1991 and 2oo3 is 408. The lowest number of executions being 6 in 1991 and the highest of 76 in 1994. The average is about 40 executions per year or 13.57 executions per capita (per 1 million people). Despite the fluctuation in execution rates in a period of just a little over a decade, Singapore is still believed to maintain the highest execution rate per capita in the world. This even exceeds that of Saudi Arabia which is well-known for its strict Sharia laws.

According to the UN Secretary-General's quinquennial report on capital punishment (UN document: E/CN.15/2001/10, para. 68), for the period 1994 to 1999 Singapore had a rate of 13.57 executions per one million population, representing by far the highest rate of executions in the world. This is followed by Saudi Arabia (4.65), Belarus (3.20), Sierra Leone (2.84), Kyrgyzstan (2.80), Jordan (2.12) and China (2.01). The largest overall number of executions for the same period took place in China, followed in descending order by the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States of America, Nigeria and Singapore.

- Amnesty International Press Release

Note the difference between executions per capita and number of executions. It is important to distinguish the two and I often hear people confusing the two. While Singapore ranks first in the former, it ranks 6th, just behind the United States of America, in the total number of prisoners executed between 1994 and 1999. That's pretty impressive for a country with only a fraction of the American population, don't you think?

Coming back to the original question, we can define efficiency of the death penalty by the increase/decrease of associated crime per capita before and after the implementation of the death penalty. Any competent statistical analyst would automatically reject conclusions meriting the death penalty as a factor for a particular effect on crime rates without this data. Hence the 'double-edged sword' effect where one cannot claim the death penalty has been ineffective equally as much as it has been effective. Officials are always keen to flaunt this groundless conclusion that the death penalty has been an effective deterent against crime without actually presenting any statistical data. And it is THIS myth that I wish to demystify. It is a widely-spread belief amongst Singaporeans, presumbably just because government officials keep reiterating this whenever the mass media makes mention of the death penalty. It is an instinctive logical reaction to say that the death penalty is a sucessful deterent against crime. It makes sense that anyone afraid of death would do wise to avoid comitting the crime. But people are complex creatures and often it isn't the case. Look at newspaper articles of recent criminals sentenced to death. How many look like they have a death wish on their mind? Crimes are equally complex and diverse.

Some such as Sporescores on this thread at Mr Wang's blog thinks that surely there must be better studies done in the U.S. for example that show if the death penalty is effective or not. The answer is yes. In fact, anyone who is willing to spend some time on the Amnesty International website will find much related information on the death penalty in other countries. In some instances, crime rates increased after the implementation of the death penalty! Our admission that we don't know why this happens, a contradiction to our logic mentioned above, while people can still justify the death penalty is complete ignorance of these unanswered questions. But the importanted thing to understand is that the effects of the death penalty in one country can vary in another. For a more conclusive result, what could be more accurate than data of Singapore's own execution rates before and after the implementation of the death penalty? I recommend taking a look at the links at Amnesty USA here:

- The death penalty defies international standards;
- The death penalty claims innocent lives;
- The death penalty is not a deterrent;
- and other closely related articles based on US statistics.

Statistics ultimately lead to truth. And no type of logic or level of IQ can argue otherwise. Regretably, the information currently available is inconclusive and at very best, only shows that claims of the death penalty being efficient is groundless. We have to ask important questions as a responsible society in a developed and civilised country:

1) Is our government doing the right thing by retaining the death penalty, given that Singapore has the highest execution per capita with almost zero probability of successful clemency, and that the death penalty is against international law and human rights, an increasingly important concept in developed nations?
2) What are the consequences we may face tomorrow for failing to grasp human rights today?
3) Are the people well-informed about their government to make the right and responsible decisions? Why is the death penalty somewhat shrouded in secrecy, and not made publicly available via an annual report of some sort?
4) What are the execution rates before and after the implementation of the death penalty? Will the Ministry of Home Affairs release all records of execution history prior to 1991?

Some of these questions might not seem relevant in a nation where people are not given the choice to make changes or abolish the death penalty. But as most Singaporeans often find, they have to chose between the path of ignorance and that of truth. However, those who choose to take the Ostrich path and bury their heads deep in the sand are already condemning such people on death row without "fair trial" on their own accord and maintaining a blind faith in the arm of the law that dishes out death. Remember if not for ethical reasons why the death penalty is dangerous; convicted innocents are bound to happen, forensic evidence is never 100% proof of guilt, the legal system is fallible and the death penalty has not been proven effective as it's been claimed to be.


Anonymous said...

In the spirit of debate, consider the following hypothesis: for every one person attempting to bring and traffick drugs into Singapore, perhaps 10-20 might do so for countries many times larger than Singapore (and where capital punishment isn't on the Statute book). Smallness in size has many disadvantages; but it also has some advantages, one of which is that an individual is indeed individualised; he/she is unable to be anonymous, in the same way that he/she would be in a population of huge critical mass which a far larger country reposes. Consequently, apprehending those who commit crimes, such as the trafficking of illicit drugs, might be less difficult than it would in larger entities. The efficiency of law enforcement and the administration of justice also becomes more apparent. The conclusion: statistics only have their value and can only be understood if placed within a certain perspective or context. Feel free to point out the fallacy of this argument. I merely raise it in the spirit of debate.

clyde said...

Rightly so anonymous. Statistics show trends and individual numbers are ambiguous at best without a context. In understanding what they mean, it is important to know both what they show and don't show. And in the context of an efficient law enforcement, Singapore probably does catch more of their drug-traffickers than larger countries. But how much more? And if we assumed just for a moment that Singapore was equally "inefficient" at apprehending traffickers as Country X, would the official crime rates be low then? How low is considered low by society?

In defending the reasons for abolishing the death penalty, I maintain that current data is insufficient to sustain claims of an efficient death penalty. And even though it cannot claim the opposite either, it still begs the question why we should "not fix it if it ain't broke" when people could be granted their right to life based on ethical reasons and that the possibility that the death penalty has no evident effect on drug crimes.

clyde said...

By the way, I understand you weren't implying otherwise. But for anyone who wishes to throw up a hypothesis to characterise the effects of the death penalty on the crime rate, they should first understand that no amount of logical hypotheses will be able to contradict statistics nor have any evidential value.

Anonymous said...

On two occasions over the past 3 days I attempted to establish a blog when this particular blog did not accept anonymous posts, but after filling the data on step 2 in the first instance and step 1 in the second, the programme on both occasions stalled, hence the anonymous post. I re-read my post and so nothing personal in it: as mentioned in it I posted it in the spirit of debate. But the response to my post starts with a personal attack.

PS: If anyone can advise me of a better way to set up a blog than trying to do it via the -- not very workable -- link here, please post a response here. Many thanks.

clyde said...

What was personal in either of our comments, anonymous? I fail to see a "personal attack" anywhere.

Anonymous said...

If you say so, then that's fine, we can leave it, and I apologise for suggesting you were personal (in attacking my motives) with that initial sentence of yours.

clyde said...

No sarcasm intended! Honestly...

By the way, it might be helpful to try signing up on another computer if it keeps crashing on your current one.

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