Should Capital Punishment Be Abolished?
The history of criminal law in modern times is the story of the gradual softening of the severity of old penal codes and the abolition of their barbarities. Capital punishment was a common penalty for many different offences in the old days, and even in days not so old. In England, for example, only 120 years ago death by hanging was the legal punishment for no less than 160 offences ! Then a man could be hanged for poaching, stealing a sheep, theft of goods worth five shillings, or picking a man’s pocket ! It was Sir Robert Peel who, as Home Secretary, revised the penal code in 1823, and gradually cut down the number of capital offences to two only — murder and treason.
Capital punishment has been abolished in some countries, such as Italy and Holland ; and though still legal in Belgium and France, it has not been enforced there for many years. Arguments for and against the abolition of the death penalty have been advanced.
Those against abolition are in the main two. First, death is the logical penalty for inflicting death on another, according to the Mosaic principle, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Second, the abolition of capital punishment for murder would greatly increase the number of murders, which now are kept down by fear of the dreadful penalty.
In opposition to these arguments, the supporters of the movement for abolition say that the principle of “an eye for an eye” is not applied to other crimes ; for instance, a thief is not punished by having his own goods stolen. As to the idea that the substitution of, say, imprisonment for life for murder instead of hanging, would increase the number of murders, they point to the fact that this has not been so in Italy or Holland. It may be added that similar arguments have been used against all reforms of the criminal law, but they proved to be fallacious. Indeed over-severity has often increased crime by making criminals desperate, as is pointed out in the proverb, “You may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb”.
The main argument against capital punishment is that it is irrevocable. Justice is not infallible, and terrible mistakes have been made in murder trials. Prisoners have been condemned to death and executed who were afterwards, but too late, proved to be innocent. If life-imprisonment had been the penalty for murder, the victims of these terrible miscarriages of justice could at any rate have been released and compensated for wrongful conviction. But nothing can be done to rectify the error when the convicted man has been hanged.