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Stabroek News

Hung up on hanging
published: Sunday | November 16, 2008

Dr Orville Taylor, Contributor

Off with their heads! Hang them from the highest tree! This hanging debate in Parliament as regards the death penalty is an emotive issue, but we cannot seem to find a consensus. Indeed, it is a hung jury.

A few weeks ago, men of the cloth jumped the gun and attempted unsuccessfully to point to a biblical justification for killing in the name of the State. Unlike the Church's stance on sexuality, this has created a split in the middle and because of a few overzealous pastors, there is no united front. But that is not where the honest discussion must 'lie.' As far as the teachings of the Bible are concerned, this is a matter for the laws of man.

And what do the laws of man say? Laws must exist for particular purposes, and they must make sense. In my own discipline, sociology, we recognise that law is functional as it keeps society together. How-ever, in doing so, each rule that governs our behaviour supports a function.

At different historical junctures, laws were enacted to fulfil certain objectives. For example, between the late 1700s and early 1800s in England, trade unions were illegal because they prevented factory owners from exploiting their workers. Similarly, it was legislated that black people in the Caribbean during that period, were not persons and had no status in law. The logic of this is obvious.

Penalties for inducing strikes

As the Industrial Revolution gathered speed in the early 1800s, the penalties for inducing a strike or factory sabotage could result in permanent transportation to Australia, and in some cases, execution. Interestingly, none of this prevented the myriad acts of machinery and plant destruction by the workers and ultimately, Parliament had to relent by passing the Trade Union Ordinance in 1871, legalising trade unions and allowing for the expression of industrial grievances.

What is important is that during this epoch that strikes were illegal, workers did not fear the penalties, rather, they feared being caught; however, as long as there was a network of silence that kept their activities hidden, there was no deterrent effect.

As we attempt to grapple with the burgeoning crime rate, including the all- too 'freak-quent' kidnappings and rapes by the scum of the Earth, there is the knee-jerk sadomasochistic debate among those whom we have elected to run and serve out country. Although the Privy Council, European Union and England say that we cannot execute, some feel that we should give the finger to the mother country's opinion and pop necks.

Public safety, security

Nevertheless, let us be logical and ask: What should be the basis for hanging? What is it intended to do? First must be the question of public safety and security. If a murderer is caught and incarcerated, then he is not likely to jump the prison walls and kill.

However, as member of parliament (MP) Patrick Harris states, hardened criminals do remain key players in the criminal underground. In some prisons in the United States, as many as two out of every 10 murder convicts kill again within the prisons. Thus, if one wants to argue that this is the basis for the State executing murderers for capital homicide, then, so be it. But that is after the fact.

Despite the conclusions in some literature sent to me by a reader, there is not enough evidence to support the deterrence effect here in Jamaica. Seriously, in the emerging studies that are being conducted, what scares criminals is the probability of being apprehended.

What is the point?

Furthermore, even if there were the likelihood of being executed, what are the chances of being convicted? My informed estimate is that close to 70 per cent of murder accused walk free after being brought to trial. So what is the point?

What seems to be the motive for the yes vote by some, is that we want some sort of collective revenge. Let us be honest here: we want retribution. That is, the motivation is not about deterrence or punishment, but vengeance. It is simply because an individual has wronged us either individually or collectively, and we need to avenge this. If this is what the argument is, then the parliamentarians who support it just need to say so. Blood for blood! We are still that wild creature that ran around in the jungle.

It is easy to empathise with the retribution perspective, especially being an inner-city product myself. It is natural to want to kill those who have murdered our loved ones. Indeed, given the spate of abductions and rapes, capped by the awful act of sodomy and murder of the little boy in Westmoreland, we all would like to see not only murders hanged or shot, but even rapists feel the fire. But how would that help the crime rate?

One parliamentarian has made the unthinkable utterance that his colleagues who do not support the death penalty are, in fact, legalising murder. If ignorance is bliss, then he must be on cloud nine.

Positionless 'leaders'

Another set of positionless 'leaders' are leaving it in the hands of their constituents and "will follow them because they are their leaders". If they are so democratic, why not decriminalise marijuana? Most Jamaicans feel we should.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. The only immediate solution has to be via the police. If the public has better relations with and more confidence in the police, then it will work. People who trust the police will cough up the murderers. New York was able significantly to reduce its homicide rate under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and it has no death penalty. What he did was increase the capacity of the police and worked on good citizen relationships.

Act we must, but sensibly.

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