The Death Penalty – Myths and Facts

A hangmans noose, still used as a method of execution. Photo thanks to peppergrass (flickr)

I have recently blogged on a number of occasions about the Death Penalty (China executing…well, anyone really).  The discussions and comments that have followed have thrown up some basic myths that I will spend a small amount of time trying to counter.  The list is pretty long but I have tried to pick out some of the most common accusations thrown at anti-death penalty campaigners. 

1) The Death Penalty acts as a strong deterrent to violent crime.

In the US, states that still have the death penalty have a higher murder rate (per population) than states that have abolished the death penalty.  The deterrent argument assumes that a criminal will have thought about the punishment and decided that a long-term prison sentence is acceptable while execution is not.  This ignores the reality that most violent crimes are committed spontaneously leaving little possibility for the punishment to affect the decision process.  The idea that someone was going to undertake a stabbing but then thought better of it after hearing that this might result in his execution is laughable.

2) The Death Penalty is legitimate because most people support it

History is littered with examples where fundamental human rights violations have occurred with the support of a population.  Slavery, racial segregation and voting in New Labour in 2005 all had strong public support, but we would look back now and state that these actions were wrong. 

This does not tackle the issue however of why people support the death penalty.  It appears that people do not support the death penalty per se, more a desire to be free from crime (holding the view that the death penalty will lead them to this condition).  If politicians can be shown to be tough on crime and to be tackling the causes of crime (I am aware I sound a bit like Tony Blair) then I think the public support for the death penalty would drop.  Indeed, a poll in the US showed that when life imprisonment was offered as an alternative option to the death penalty, support for the punishment dropped from 68% to 48%. 

3) The Death Penalty is the most cost effective way of dealing with nasty criminals.  Why should we pay for murders to be kept inside a cell for the rest of their lives? 

The number of prisoners condemned to death compared to prison populations in tiny.  In the US for example, prison population is about 2.2 million, and those sentenced to death make up about 3,000.  Cost to the tax payer? If you are worried about this issue, start campaigning for alternatives to prison (especially in relation to mental illness).  This would save the tax payer more than executing a few hundred (or thousand in China’s case).

The Death Penalty remains an out-dated ineffectual form of punishment.  In Europe it is slowly dying out (with only Belarus still practising), but across the word there are still many regimes that you would not expect undertaking it.  Countries that still retain the death penalty are:

Afghanistan, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Botswana, Chad, China, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, Dominica, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Guinea, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lesotho, Libya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan, Thailand, Trinidad And Tobago, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United States Of America, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zimbabwe

Want to know more from some experts? Have a look at:


Filed under Human rights

4 responses to “The Death Penalty – Myths and Facts

  1. Mike

    Steve, does the UK not still retain the Death Penalty for Treason? See your list of countries.


    • The Death Penalty was eventually removed from the staute books in 98, with an amendment by the house of lords (I think). We could bring it back if we were to withdraw from the council of europe (which is unlikley).


  2. When it comes to the death penalty, you have some good logical points. Frankly I support the practice of it considering that only a few people actually get it and let alone it being carried out. In theory of taking a life is a different story.

    I feel that the real debate is 2 fold. First, its a permanent punishment. If a person is found guilty of the murder 1 or treason charges (the only 2 crimes in the US that it can be a punishment), and are later found innocent, then that’s a problem that I do have. 2. It’s a moral thing to many people. Around the world there is a moral standing that life needs to be preserved as long as possible and prevent death (as unreasonable as it sounds). No matter who dies, it takes a look at our mortality which is something we do not want to think about. Which is probabally the reason why we do not really want the Death Penalty. I do agree it should be applied to the worst of the worst and not any innocent people.


    • Steven,

      Of course, this desire for it to apply to “the worse of worse” is commonly held (not by myself, but I suspect by the majority of the population). The problem is that it is almost impossible to accurately distinguish who the worse of the worse is. Both my country (the UK) and your own have a history of messing up trials, having politically motivated judiciaries and such forth. We have in past, and the US still do, execute innocent people!

      I would also like to take you up on your assertion that it only happens to a few people. Sadly this is not the case. Thousands of people are executed annually (see Sadly, your 43rd president seemed quite keen on the idea, and our friends down in Texas keep up the US average (Are the more people in Texas who deserve the DP. or are the punishment used to political ends?)! This has kept the US in the “Top 5” for number of judicial executions alongside China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (do you see any links?)

      On your second point (about keeping people alive no matter what), I think you are partially right. We (in the western “liberal” world) have a strange obsession with keeping people alive. For me however, this argument applies a lot better to euthanasia; not the death penalty. The difference, person x (euthanasia) is terminal and is consenting; person b (death penalty), is probably not consenting, and could well go onto lead a functioning productive life.
      Working on this analogy, has anyone worked out how so many “pro-lifers” can be pro the death penalty…always on odd one but you feel rude asking!


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