There’s a Legitimate Case for the Death Penalty in the UK – It Shouldn’t Be Taboo

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By Harry Phibbs | 4:25 am, November 2, 2016

The UKIP leadership contender Paul Nuttall MEP has expressed support for restoration of the death penalty.

It was a cautious plea in a measured tone. There were caveats. He would favour it in exceptional circumstances “for child and serial killers”.

Furthermore he would only wish to see capital punishment restored if it had first won support in a referendum. Still, for him to have to be temerity to raise the issue at all was still enough to produce indignation.

“UKIP are the only thing the death penalty should be used on,” was the measured response of one member of the Lib Dems via Twitter.

Milder responses to Nuttall’s view was that it was “extreme”, “barbaric”, “uncivilised” and that he proved himself to be a “demagogue” by proposing it.

Yet Nuttall’s opinion is widely shared. The last time YouGov polled on the matter – in 2014 – there was support from 45% for the reintroduction of the death penalty for murder, opposition from 39%.

Often the debate is characterised as encompassing “left wing” and “right wing” divide.

However, 35% of Labour voters support capital punishment. Yet not a single one of the 231 Labour MPs in the House of Commons shares their view. I suspect that if any of them were to do so they would be deselected.

There has been much reflection on how out of touch Labour proved with its working class supporters over Brexit. In a way this disconnection is even more stark with regard to the death penalty.

Inevitably there will be strong emotions – but sensible people will consider the evidence. The real justification for capital punishment is not some bloodthirsty desire for retribution but the conclusion that it would mean fewer lives being lost.

The overwhelming verdict from the academic research in the United States is that it does. One study by professors at Emory University in 2003 estimated that each execution deters an average of 18 murders. That ratio was exceptionally high, but other research confirms that basic message.

A 2006 study by professors at the University of Houston found that the Illinois moratorium on executions in 2000 led to 150 additional homicides over the following four years.

Professor Naci Mocan of the University of Colorado undertook another research project which found that each execution results in five fewer homicides.

He said: “The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect. The results are robust, they don’t really go away. I oppose the death penalty. But my results show that the death penalty [deters] – what am I going to do, hide them?”

What is even harder to dismiss is that capital punishment deters repeat offending.

When Ronald Reagan was Governor of California he kept a sheet of paper on his desk which he would bring out when challenged on the issue.

“It was a list of the names of 12 criminals, 12 murderers, who had all been sentenced to prison, who had all served their terms or been paroled, and released, ” he said.

“And at the time the list was on my desk, their total number of victims then was 34, not 12. I think capital punishment in the beginning might have reduced that figure considerably.”

Barack Obama has said, in the past at least, that he supports the death penalty: “We have to have this ultimate sanction for certain circumstances in which the entire community says this is beyond the pale.” Hillary Clinton says she supports its use under “federal jurisdiction, for very limited purposes”.

Certainly the use of the death penalty has declined, and some argue its use is outdated. But the reality is that new technology strengthens the case for it. DNA evidence greatly reduces the risk of miscarriage of justice.

Just as there is a moral case for pacifism, so the moral objection to capital punishment deserves respect.

Yet the abolition of capital punishment since 1965 in the UK has had the practical consequence that innocent lives have been lost that otherwise could have been saved.

This is why ordinary people continue to debate the issue in a rigorous and intelligent manner. Its consideration should no longer be a taboo among the political establishment.