The Death Penalty: A Deterrent or a Distraction? George Kain for the 11th International Meeting of Ministers of Justice

November 28 2018 - ROME, ITALY

Death Penalty

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The Death Penalty: A Deterrent or a Distraction?

To the World Ministers of Justice: I am honored to have been asked to speak to you concerning the arguments that using the death penalty serves as a deterrent which prevents murders and other serious crimes. I would like to share some of my experiences with you.
Whether the death penalty acts as a method of crime prevention has been a subject of debate for hundreds of years. We hear talk of deterrence as support for the death penalty in current debates for cases involving drug trafficking and in cases of terrorism. Even the President of the United States has openly said that he supports the death penalty for drug dealers and terrorists.  It seems to me however, that vengeance and retribution have replaced any rational understanding of deterrence and has clouded our vision, and vengeance uses emotion to replace reason.

We have been led to believe that capital punishment is likely to deter more than any other punishments because supposedly, people fear death more than anything else. If only that were true- in my experience, I have learned that it is not true.  My personal experience as both a professor of criminal justice and as a 35 year veteran law enforcement officer has shown me that the death penalty simply doesn’t work as a deterrent and is ineffective as well as unnecessary in the fight against crime. This is the reason that I became involved in abolishing the death penalty in my own state in the United States, when we abolished the death penalty in 2012. It took us 25 years to end the death penalty in my state, but we were part of a movement that raised awareness for other states to take a more reasoned approach to the problem of crime control in the United States. I have been able to take that important message to many other states, as well as to other countries around the world- to Japan and the Philippines.

As a result, in the last 15 years, we have seen a drastic decline in not only the number of executions in the US, but a large decline in the number of death sentences as well.  Fewer states are using the death penalty than ever before. The number of states that have abolished the death penalty has increased to 20, and even fewer states that still have the death penalty actually use the death penalty. I could not have imagined such a drastic decline in the use of the death penalty, when you consider that we executed 527 people in a 7 year period from 1997-2003. In the last 12 years, 8 states have abolished the death penalty and the murder rate nationwide continues to decline.  At the same time, we have seen a number of other countries turn away from the use of death penalty as we continue to learn more about the realities of the death penalty.

There is no proof that having the death penalty has deterred murders, and there are many other states in the United States that are strongly considering abolishing the death penalty. We are learning that the violence of the death penalty is not helping us to reduce crime. This is not to say that we don’t have a problem with violence in the US. What I am saying is that we have learned that the death the penalty is not the solution to violence in our country. Our violence is caused by the myriads of social problems that we encounter- the proliferation of guns, violence in our schools, isolation and despair in our families, unemployment, substance abuse, gang affiliation, disenfranchisement, and fear.

I began to collaborate with the Community of Sant’ Egidio in 2012 after I learned of the work that they were doing to end the death penalty, and our common bond has led to our working together to spread a new sense of justice around the world, and in the reality that the death penalty does not make us safer. Even if drug dealers are subjected to capital punishment, that will not stop drug trafficking. A person who sees that they can become wealthy, is not going to be deterred from committing such crimes, and others will step up to continue to sell drugs, even if others are caught. Executing drug dealers will not stop drug dealing. Neither will executing terrorists stop the problem of terrorism. The severity of any punishment will not stop terrorists, because we have learned that if terrorists die as a result of their missions, in their minds, they have succeeded—it is a badge of honor to carry out a death mission and to be killed in the process.  How then, can the use of the death penalty impact their decision making? It will not.

What then, can we do? Or maybe the question today is, more importantly, what should we not do? In the United States, murder rates have dropped in states after the death penalty was abolished. None of them have seen an increase in murder rates.  This is further evidence that the death penalty is not a deterrent. Those on the front line in fighting crime- police leaders- who were previously vocal supporters of capital punishment, have turned against the death penalty. In 2 studies carried out 5 years apart in recent years, police chiefs in the United States have placed capital punishment at the very bottom of the list when asked to list the tools which are most effective in fighting the problem of crime in their states. It is for this reason that I, as a law enforcement officer, believe that it is important for me to actively speak out against the false ideas about the value of the death penalty and to encourage the use of less violent strategies to make us a safer society. We must develop strategies designed to build communities where they are being destroyed- economically and socially, and to involve our leaders in understanding research-based strategies which can be effective in truly fighting the problem of crime.

We must ask ourselves this important question: What kind of world are we leaving for our children and future generations? Look at the gun violence in the United States, and how little our government is doing to stop it? What effect is this having on our young people? And perhaps most importantly, what are our young people saying, and are we willing to listen to them?

Ministers of Justice, the death penalty is violence- we are living it-our young people are seeing it and they are living it. True justice demands that we seek to fix our world by bringing true peace to the world. Ending the death penalty is a big step in the right direction toward creating lasting peace in our world, because it is a strong statement to put an end to the terrible cycle of violence. Abolishing the death penalty is important to achieving world peace and we can begin that process by agreeing to end the death penalty in the world by what we are doing here today.

George F. Kain, Ph.D.