Capital punishment refers to 'state sanctioned executions'. All jurisdictions in Australia have abolished capital punishment, with the last prisoner executed in 1967 in the state of Victoria. 1 Opponents of capital punishment ascertain that morality directs individuals away from repulsive acts of crime, whilst proponents encourage its reinforcement in order to deter individuals from committing crime and eventually decreasing crime rates. Debate concerning capital punishment is not abated and therefore needs to be reconciled as there is no significant deterrence effect.
Where offences are committed with no premeditated intention to kill, "the offender will make little attempt to avoid detection". 2 Capital punishment then instead may inspire acts of violence and diminish its suggested deterrence effect. 3 There is no compelling evidence justifying capital punishment as a unique deterrent, and while the deterrence thesis suggests a decrease in homicides, the opposing brutalization thesis suggested an increase.
On the contrary, the null hypothesis states that capital punishment has no effect on the incidence of crime, in particular, murder. Therefore, an investigation of this research will be conducted in the first part of this paper, whilst the latter part will evaluate the critical elements of the capital punishment contention. Due to the lack of clear evidence, I assert that the possibility of human error, the destructiveness of killing and access to other means of punishment, unquestionably overshadows the deterrence effect of capital punishment.
Deterrence vs Brutalization Theory Those who support the deterrence theory often refer to empirical research which allegedly proves the deterrence effect of capital punishment, but this research is flawed and overshadowed by evidence to the contrary – the brutalization effect. The general consensus in economic journals that capital punishment deters criminal activity, does not translate into other disciplines', for example, sociology. These studies have found no convincing evidence supporting the deterrence effect or that of the null hypothesis.
Instead a distinct increase in murder rates have been measured which supports the brutalization effect. A few economic researchers such as Lui4, have found evidence supporting the deterrence hypothesis. Nevertheless, as only few support the contention that capital punishment is justified due to its deterrent nature, the argument is exceptionally tenuous. "The brutalization effect is the consequence of beastly examples that executions present". 5 Shepherd found evidence suggesting that murder rates increase when the number of executions falls below a threshold number of nine6.
Although there is a significant body of research advancing the deterrence theory in favour of the brutalization hypothesis, there is extremely strong evidence by proposers such as Bowers and Pierce7, in support of the brutalization conjecture. Evidence found by Bailey8 and Cochran9 advocates an increase in stranger homicides after a widely publicized execution. Thus, "executions create an atmosphere of brutality that spurs criminals to more violence".
10 Some commentators such as that of Peterson11, suggest that capital punishment does not significantly effect crime rates, therefore some research purports to be in favour of the null hypothesis. 12 Furthermore, the deterrence theory is criticised whilst approximately 80% of criminologists do not believe that the death penalty creates a deterrent effect on criminals13. Capital punishment directs us towards believing that it derives the "legitimacy of lethal vengeance, not of deterrence". 14 Evidence determining the effect capital punishment has on criminal behaviour is somewhat questionable.
However in saying this, the deviation between the two hypothesis of research must be considered. As significant reasons against tolerating the death penalty appear to outweigh the ambiguity of the deterrence effect, it cannot be used to justify capital punishment. Right to Kill? Killing is a destructive act and those who manifest such gruesome conduct must be looked down upon, even if the killer is the state. 15 Life is priceless – who can and cannot live should not be determined by the state.
Although crime, in particular murder, is offensive, two wrongs do not make a right. Therefore, those who cause scandal to arise in society, should not have the ability to undermine compassion, mercy and forgiveness that the state curtails16. This leaves us questioning, how can we face the injustice in executing criminals if there is no sound evidence that this will save innocent lives by deterring criminal behaviour in the future? Executions do not only devalue human life, they "demonstrate that it is correct and appropriate to kill those who have greatly offended us".