The deterrent effects of capital punishment

Can capital punishment be justified? Outline a response to this question based upon at least two philosophical theories outlined by Cavadino and Dignan or in your lecture notes. Is the uncertainty about the deterrent effects of capital punishment an important factor to consider and is this adequately addressed by the theories you have chosen? Murder is the unlawful killing of another human being with an intentional or criminal intent as defined in section 18 of the Crimes Act 1900 (Austlii 2007: Crimes Act 1900). In modern society, atrocious crimes are being committed daily and many believe that those who commit them deserve one fate: death.

Capital punishment, the death penalty, is the maximum sentence used in punishing people who kill another human being – and is a very controversial method of punishment. Australia has signed the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which commits Australia to the eradication of the death penalty (Barry 1968). Furthermore, the Death Penalty Abolition Act (1973) of the Commonwealth provides the legislative foundation for its obliteration, with Section 4 stating 'A person is not liable to the punishment of death for any offence'. However, is this form of punishment justifiable?

(Austlii 2007: Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973). Having this national and international legal reasoning, capital punishment is still being exercised in other countries. The United States of America still retains the death penalty, as well as many African and Asian nations (Chan & Oxley, 2004). In a broad sense, those who oppose the death penalty, argue that it is immoral and that no person should be sentenced to death, it has no place in a civilised society, and that since the death penalty cannot be racially bias, it should be banished. However, capital punishment can be justified by several means.

First of all, it significantly discourages violent crimes like murder and rape. Today, many convicted murderers are not serving most (if even half) of their prison term, due to early parole or overcrowded prisons. If a murderer is sentenced to life imprisonment, not only does it cost the taxpayers money to maintain and hold them in prison, but often their life in the goal is often superior than that which some citizens live everyday. This encourages crime rather than impede them. Yet, many people are against the death penalty, because they feel that innocent people will be wrongfully executed, in the name of justice.

However, there are many safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty (Black 1974). These justifications can be placed within two well known philosophical theories that place much weight on the evidence that punishment is justifiable (Honderich 1984). These are the 'retribution' and 'reductivism' or better known as deterrence theories (Cavadino & Dignan, 1992). There are other theories that justify capital punishment, such as economics of keeping a prisoner alive, however this essay will focus on just the two. Retribution is held as one of the main principles for supporters of capital punishment.

It justifies punishment on the reason that the offender deserves it. It is a theory that dwells on the past, looking back at the offence. This way of thinking sources back to the Old Testament with the phrase "an eye for an eye", the lex talionis, or law of retaliation from Exodus 21:23-27 (Shubow, 2006). Whether or not the phrase originated as a rule of punishment today, it expresses a principle of retributive justice in that two wrongs can make something right (Cavadino et al 1992). It has the element of revenge in order to match the punishment with the crime.