In a completely on brand move, for a Home Secretary that has discussed putting asylum seekers seeking refuge in the UK on a Volcanic Island in the South Atlantic Ocean 800 miles away, Priti Patel is considering bringing back the death penalty to the UK with the intention of the UK committing its first state executions since 1964. Calls for bringing back the death penalty have long been associated with the far right, both UKIP and the English Defence League (EDL) have spoken in favour of it. To see it now take a hold in the government is a very worrying development.
Bringing back the death penalty in some circumstances is a popular policy. YouGov polling last year found that while 45% of the British public oppose the death penalty for crimes such as murder, over 50% support the death penalty as punishment for multiple murders or murder as part of a terrorist act. If it was put to a referendum it is likely that the UK public would vote in favour of its reintroduction. 70% of the general public think that sentences handed to criminals are not harsh enough, this suggests that the introduction of tougher sentences and punishments for crimes would be popular. This feeling is born out of an understandable emotional reaction and the anger many of us feel towards people who commit very serious and horrific crimes. This feeling is further influenced culturally by countless storylines seen across TV/Film and Novels where a protagonist gets revenge on a villain who has murdered their family or wronged them. These emotional reactions should however, not drive government policy.
The death penalty is a violation of human rights and an extreme punishment that gives far too much power to governments and criminal justice systems. It directly goes against progressive values and the idea that criminal justice systems should be restorative and aim to reform individuals rather than punish them. It further leads to people dying in extreme pain due to the use of cruel methods of execution. In the USA in 2014, Clayton Lockett lay in agony for 43 minutes before dying due to a botched lethal injection. On the 12th of December, the Iranian Government executed Ruhollah Zam an Iranian journalist who had been living in exile in Paris before he has lured to Iraq, kidnapped and brought back to Iran by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Ruhollah Zam had been a prominent critic of the Iranian Government and was hung without him or his family being given any notice, an action almost certainly done to avoid international pressure calling for his release. The Chinese, Iranian and Saudi Arabian Governments all execute hundreds of people each year, with many of these people being critics of these Governments and being executed in order to quell dissent. This shows that the death penalty is often used as a tool by authoritarian governments to execute innocent people and silence critics.
Another fundamental flaw of the death penalty is that it deepens existing injustices. This is evident in the USA, where racial injustices are systemic. 1 in every 3 African-American men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime compared to 1 in every 17 white American men. African-American men are more likely to receive longer prison sentences, be the victims of misjustice, and be sentenced for crimes they didn’t commit. They are also far more likely to receive the death penalty than white Americans. This places them more at risk of being executed and executed when innocent. A study led by Samuel Gross from the University of Michigan found that at least 4% of those executed in the USA since 1970 were innocent. This means that hundreds of innocent people have been executed in the USA since 1970 and due to the existence of structural racism within the American criminal justice system, a disproportionate number of those executed when innocent will have been black.
The racial injustices that are present in the USA are similar to many that exist in our own criminal justice system. People from ethnic minority backgrounds represent about 16% of the UK population but 23% of people arrested and 27% of people in prison. They are also more likely to receive longer and harsher sentences. The UK is a nation where people from ethnic minority backgrounds are stereotyped as being criminal and deviant and are more likely than other social groups to experience wrongful arrest and conviction. The reintroduction of the death penalty to a deeply unequal criminal justice system would place people from ethnic minority backgrounds at a higher risk than any other social group in the UK of being executed by the state.
The reintroduction of the death penalty to the UK would be a disaster. It would make an already very punitive and harsh criminal justice system, even harsher and crueller. It directly increases the chances of people from ethnic minority backgrounds of becoming the victims of state violence and injustice. There is a sad inevitably to its misuse and a subsequent grave irreversible act of injustice occurring if it is reintroduced. The risk of even executing one innocent person means reintroducing the death penalty should not even be considered. As other countries across the world move towards introducing reforms that aim to create more progressive criminal justice systems rooted in notions of restorative justice, the UK should not be considering reintroducing an outdated punishment that has no place in the modern world. It should instead be focusing on how to counter the existences of injustices produced by its own criminal justice system.
By Nelson Cummins