EU Conference in Guyana for The Abolition of The Death Penalty

The Death Penalty As A Deterrent: Does It Work?

Leela Ramdeen

Leela Ramdeen, Chair, Greater Caribbean for Life (TT) )

Good afternoon, my friends. We all know the saying by the 19th Century writer: Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables (1802-1885).  He said: “What says the law? You will not kill. How does it say it? By killing!”  And, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in his message to those of us who gathered in Madrid at the 5th World Congress against the Death Penalty in 2013: “There is no justice in killing in the name of justice, and no godliness in exacting vengeance.”

Too often it is the poor/working class, and individuals from minority ethnic communities who are over represented on death row/receive the death sentence. As the saying goes: “Capital punishment is for those who have no capital.”

Let me state from the outset that GCL believes that society has a right to protect itself from persons who commit heinous crimes and offenders must be held accountable. However, we believe that non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect society from offenders.

While GCL condemns the rise of violent crime in the Greater Caribbean region, and stands in solidarity with the victims of crime, members reject the notion that capital punishment will act as a deterrent or foster respect for life in our communities. What is urgent is for governments to consider the root causes of crime.

  1. See General Assembly of the United Nations:Resolution 65/206 of 2012 and 69/186 of 18 Dec 2014 –– endorse the claim that there is “no conclusive evidence of the deterrent value of the death penalty.“ Convinced that a moratorium on the use of the death penalty contributes to respect for human dignity and to the enhancement and progressive development of human rights, and considering that there is no conclusive evidence of the deterrent value of the death penalty…”
  2. Here in our Caribbean region, The Honourable the Chief Justice, Mr Justice Ivor Archieof Trinidad and Tobago, said at the opening of the Law Term, 2010: “I am yet to see any persuasive empirical evidence that executions significantly reduce murder or crime rates generally… social scientists…suggest(s) that the certainty of conviction, and within a reasonably quick time, is a more potent factor.”

And at the opening of the Law Term this year (16 September 2015), he said that:

“Over the past few years the number of persons awaiting trial for murder has risen to more than 514. Common sense tells me that by itself the death penalty is not the solution. Apart from the dubiousness of its value as a deterrent…

Frank Friel, Former Head of Organized Crime Homicide Task Force, Philadelphia, rightly says:  “The death penalty does little to prevent crime. It’s the fear of apprehension and the likely prospect of swift and certain punishment that provides the largest deterrent to crime.”

  1. It is worth notingwhat some other judges had to say about the deterrence argument in relation to the death penalty. I refer to the landmark decision by the 11 members of the Constitutional Court of South Africa – which consisted of jurists from different races, religions and age groups – in the South African case of The State v Makwanyane and Mchunu. Judgment was delivered on 6 June 1995.  The court ruled that capital punishment was incompatible with the protection against “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” in the Interim Constitution of 1993. It therefore abolished the death penalty in South AfricaThe attorney general of Witwatersrand had pressed for the death penalty for two convicts.

The Presiding Judge, President Arthur Chaskalson, stated that the most effective deterrent is the knowledge that the offender will probably be caught, convicted, and punished. In striking out the use of the death penalty, the Court said: “We would be deluding ourselves if we were to believe that the execution of the few persons sentenced to death during this period, and of a comparatively few other people each year from now onwards will provide the solution to the unacceptably high rate of crime. There will always be unstable, desperate, and pathological people for whom the risk of arrest and imprisonment provides no deterrent, but there is nothing to show that a decision to carry out the death sentence would have any impact on the behaviour of such people, or that there will be more of them if imprisonment is the only sanction. No information was placed before us by the Attorney General n regard to the rising crime rate other than   the bare statistics, and they alone prove nothing, other than that we are living in a violent society, in which most crime goes unpunished, something that we all know.”

He noted that the Attorney-General had admitted that it was impossible to prove convincingly that the death penalty was a deterrent, and that inevitably there was an element of speculation in such a conclusion. ‘It is’, he said, ‘a proposition that is not capable of proof, because one never knows about those who have been deterred; we know only about those who have not been deterred, and who have committed terrible crimes.’

“…Justice Kerigler stated in his concurring reasons:  ‘…no empirical study, no statistical exercise, and not theoretical analysis has been able to demonstrate that capital punishment has any deterrent force greater than that of a really heavy sentence of imprisonment.’

“Therefore, ‘it simply cannot be reasonable to sanction judicial killing without knowing whether it has any marginal deterrent value.’”(See p.64 of the book: The Death Penalty as Cruel Treatment and Torture… )

  1. NYU Professor David Greenberg and Virginia Tech University Professor Biko Agozinoconducted a study in Trinidad and Tobago in 2011. They found no correlation between executions, imprisonment and crime: “over a span of 50 years, during which these sanctions were being deployed in degrees that varied substantially, neither imprisonment nor death sentences nor executions had any significant relationship to homicides. In the years immediately following an appeals court’s determination limiting executions, the murder rate fell.”

In particular, the study showed that between 1950 and 1980, while executions were carried out regularly every year, homicides rates remained fairly stable. In the years since 1980, although courts continued to impose death sentences, executions took place in just two of those years. This drop in executions had no large, immediate impact on murder rates, which only began to rise sharply from 2003, when the consequences of drug trafficking and illegal possession of weapons also began taking its toll on the country.)

  1. A recently launched book, entitled: Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends and Perspectiveshas a helpful section on the issue of Deterrence. Federico Mayor,President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, rightly states in his chapter in this book: Leadership and the abolition of the death penalty: “Rejecting capital punishment is about choosing what kind of society we want to live in, and which values—including human rights and dignity, democracy and the rule of law—we want to uphold….Principled political leadership, within the domestic realm and internationally, is an essential factor in the momentum that is driving the movement for the abolition of the death penalty.

Ultimately, it is the state that must decide to abolish the death penalty and protect the fundamental human right to life. Political leadership has been very important in overcoming domestic opposition to abolition in several countries. Political leaders have recognized that while public opinion is relevant, nations face difficulties if popular sentiment, which is difficult to gauge accurately, is allowed to determine penal policy. Experience shows that the majority of the public is willing to accept abolition of capital punishment once it is achieved.”

— Federico Mayor (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR),( Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends and Perspectives, 2014, available at: [accessed 12 November 2015]

  1. A comprehensive review of the research on the issue of deterrence over 34 yearswas conducted by a Committee of The National Research Council of the National Academies in the USA. The Committee confirmed in its April 2012 report that: “research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide rates is not useful in determining whether the death penalty increases, decreases, or has no effect on these rates. The key question is whether capital punishment is less or more effective as a deterrent than alternative punishments, such as a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Yet none of the research that has been done accounted for the possible effect of non-capital punishments on homicide rates.”

These findings are consistent with research undertaken in 1988, and updated in 2002 by one of the leading authorities on the death penalty. A survey of research findings on the death penalty and homicide rates concluded that “it is not prudent to accept the hypothesis that capital punishment…deters murder to a marginally greater extent than does the threat and application of the supposedly lesser punishment of life imprisonment.”  (Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle, The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective, Oxford, OUP, 4th edition 2008).

  1. In their chapter entitled: Myth of Deterrence,  in the book Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends and Perspectives, Carolyn Hoyle and Roger Hood state: “The empirical research conducted over the past few decades demonstrates that no matter what politicians argue or the public believe, neither deterrence nor public opinion should be seen as barriers to abolition.


It is well-known that some categories of offenders would not be deterred by the threat of being executed.  Federico Mayor stated that many of those sentenced to death have mental health issues or were under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the offence, both of which suggest the defendant may not have thought through the consequences of their actions or the possibility they may be executed. Moreover, Mayor stated, organized crime groups make “calculated decisions and believe that detection and convictions are unlikely” while “those who commit terrorists acts for political ends…are often prepared to die for that cause…[and] unlikely to be deterred by the death penalty.” (See my background information from The American Civil Liberties Union etc.) )

  1. And then we have the work of Prof Michael Radelet, Chair, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado- Boulder, and Traci Lacock,  conducted in 2008. This was a survey of experts from the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and the Law and Society Association.

The survey asked the expert opinions of the world’s leading criminologists whether empirical research (not their own views) “supports the contention that the death penalty is a superior deterrent. The findings demonstrate an overwhelming consensus among these criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question strongly supports the conclusion that the death penalty does not add deterrent effects to those already achieved by long imprisonment.” ( ).
The findings are published in an article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 99 (489-508) – entitled: “Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists.” In the article, they state that the research reported was designed toupdate the 1996 study by Radelet and Akers who had surveyed 67 leading American criminologists on the issue of deterrence and the death penalty. The 2008 study also assessed “if any recent deterrence studies have modified the beliefs of the world’s leading criminologists. The results indicate that only a small minority to top criminologists – 10% or less, depending on how the question is phrased- believes that the weight of empirical research studies supports the deterrence justification for the death penalty.”

In this article they comment on a number of “widely-cited studies” conducted in the 6 years prior to the article, and written primarily by economists. These studies claimed to show the death penalty has deterrent effects that criminologists have not spotted (see Criminal Justice Legal Found, Articles on Death Penalty Deterrence, ( ).

Radelet and Lacock state that “the importance of the deterrence justification for capital punishment has declined precipitously in recent years among the general public. In the mid-twentieth century and up through the 1970s, it was unquestionably the top argument in favour of executions” p492. However, as they noted, in a Gallup Poll the proportion of respondents who stated that the death penalty was not a deterrent doubled by 2004, from 31% in 1985 to 62%. (p492).

A comparison of the results of Radelet’s and Akers’ 1996 survey and that of the 2008 survey of Radelet and Lacock, are as they say: “remarkably similar”.
88.2% of the polled criminologists stated that there is little empirical evidence from existing research to support the deterrent effect of the death penalty (up slightly from 83.6% in 1996). (5.3% believe it is deterrent vs 11.9% in 1996 survey).

Radelet and Lacock state in the above article: “Our survey indicates that the vast majority of the world’s top criminologists believe that the empirical research has revealed the deterrence hypothesis for a myth…the consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment.”

90% of the criminologists polled said that the death penalty had little effect overall on the committing of murder.

Over 75% of those polled do not believe that increasing the number of executions, or decreasing the time spent on death row before execution, would produce a general deterrent effect.

91% said that politicians support the death penalty as a symbolic way to show they are tough on crime.

75% said that it distracts legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime.

91.6% said that increasing the frequency of executions would not add a deterrent effect.

  1. There is also the result of a 1995 survey entitled: On the Front Line: Law Enforcement Views on the Death Penalty. The Death Penalty Information Center and commissioned Peter D. Hart Research Associates who in January 1995 (See: “conducted a national opinion poll of randomly selected police chiefs in the United States. In that poll, the chiefs had the opportunity to express what they believe really works in fighting crime. They were asked where the death penalty fit in their priorities as leaders in the law enforcement field.”

“Police chiefs ranked the death penalty last as a way of reducing violent crime, placing it behind curbing drug abuse, more police officers on the streets, lowering the technical barriers to prosecution, longer sentences, and a better economy with more jobs.”

Police Chiefs did not believe that murderers think about the range of possible punishments. Police Chiefs considered strengthening families and neighbourhoods, punishing criminals swiftly and surely, controlling illegal drugs, and gun control (to be) more important than the death penalty. The death penalty was rated as the least cost- effective method for controlling crime. They did not believe that the death penalty significantly reduces the number of homicides, nor did they believe that murderers think about the range of possible punishments.

  1. In the past few years, the governors of Washington, Colorado, and Oregonhave put a halt to executions in their states because of problems in the death penalty system. Below are some of the reasons they gave for their actions. (And see: for States where there is a hold on executions – for various reasons – on hold either by court or executive order).

Governor Jay Inslee, Washington, February 11, 2014

“Equal justice under the law is the state’s primary responsibility. And in death penalty cases, I’m not convinced equal justice is being served. The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred.”
“There are too many flaws in the system. And when the ultimate decision is death there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system. ”
“When the majority of death penalty sentences lead to reversal, the entire system itself must be called into question.”

Governor John Hickenlooper, Colorado, May 22, 2013 
“If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless.”
“As one former Colorado judge said to us, ‘[The death penalty] is the result of happenstance, the district attorney’s choice, the jurisdiction in which the case is filed, perhaps the race of economic circumstance of the defendant.'”
“The death penalty is not making our world a safer or better place.”

Governor John Kitzhaber, Oregon, November 22, 2011: “I do not believe that those executions made us safer; and certainly they
did not make us nobler as a society.”
“The death penalty as practiced in Oregon is neither fair nor just; and it is
not swift or certain. It is not applied equally to all.”                                                              “I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values.”

  1. A key issue to be considered in this discussion is the state of mindof those who commit murders. As Willie L. Williams, Police Chief, Los Angeles, CA said: “I am not convinced that capital punishment, in and of itself, is a deterrent to crime because most people do not think about the death penalty before they commit a violent or capital crime.”
  2. It is also worth noting that in the USA, where 31 States maintain the death penalty and 19 States and DC have abolished it, States without the death penalty have had consistently lower murder rates.

( On p.502 of Radelet’s and Lacocks article (see above), they state that “death penalty states have consistently higher homicide rates than non-death-penalty states. In 2007, for example, the homicide rate in states with active death penalty statutes was 42% higher than that of non-death-penalty states.”

“The South, which carries out over 80% of the executions in the US, has the highest murder rate of the four regions.” . One can say that this adds weight to the point that the death penalty is not a deterrent.

“In Canada, the homicide rate per 100,000 population fell from a peak of 3.09 in 1975, the year before the abolition of the death penalty for murder, to 2.41 in 1980. In 1993, 17 years after abolition, the homicide rate was 2.19 per 100,000 population, 27 per cent lower than in 1975.”

(…/asa330092013en.pdf ).

  1. Our response to crime in our region is a moral test for all of us. Any discussion of the death penalty must be considered in the context of, for example, nation-building, character development of citizens and so on. All countries in our region and in the world at large are grappling with challenges faced in producing comprehensive crime plans. But such plans are not created in a vacuum. We need crime plans based on evidence and evidence must be gathered from many sources because crime is a complex phenomenon that requires a multi-faceted/multi-sectoral approach. GCL believes that any approach that prioritises capital punishment as a crime reduction strategy is doomed to fail.

I firmly believe that these strategies, many of which were recommended by the UNDP in their 2012 report: Human development and the shift to better citizen security, can contribute to build safer, more democratic and just societies in the region. At the launch of the report in TT in Feb 2012, UNDP Administrator, Helen Clark stated:

“This report stresses the need to rethink our approaches to tackling crime and violence and providing security on the ground. We need to follow approaches that are centered on citizen security and address the causes of this recent increase in violent crime, including social, economic, and political exclusion.”
The Report reviewed “the current state of crime as well as national and regional policies and programmes to address the problem in seven English- and Dutch-speaking Caribbean countries: Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.”

“Key recommendations from the Report: High rates of violent crime can be turned around by achieving a better balance between legitimate law enforcement and preventive measures, with a stronger focus on prevention;

Governments should create or invest more in units to address gender-based violence and adopt more preventive measures to ensure that violence against girls and women is no longer tolerated

Because crime harms social cohesion, Caribbean nations must better address youth violence and street gangs, whose crimes are rarely prosecuted

Public security requires community collaboration” (See above link for source).

In the final analysis, the Report stated that while “Crime has become one of the main challenges threatening economies and livelihoods in Caribbean countries…the right mix of policies and programmes can halt the problem.”

We continue to address the symptoms of crime and not the root causes. In spite of the billions of dollars that our countries allocate in annual national budgets for national security, citizens do not feel safe. Death and destruction continue to stalk our lands.

***In March 2015, Pope Francis said:  “For the rule of law, the death penalty represents a failure, as it obliges the state to kill in the name of justice… There is discussion in some quarters about the method of killing, as if it were possible to find ways of ‘getting it right.’ … But there is no humane way of killing another person.”

In conclusion, it is clear that the death penalty is not a deterrent. It is time that we acknowledge that this myth has been exposed. Political will is what is needed today. We need courageous, visionary leaders in our region who will develop their understanding of the nature of the problems we face in the region and who will be prepared to lift their heads above the parapet and speak out/act for what is right and just.

Rather than baying for blood, let’s all work with our respective governments to: strengthen family life; fix our broken institutions – including the re-engineering of the criminal justice system; devise and implement more effective victim support initiatives; invest in education, youth development and job creation; reduce poverty and socio-economic inequality; protect children from risk-factors related to crime; work to restore respect for law, life and human rights by e.g. promoting a renewed ethic of justice, responsibility and community.

Let us go forth from this Conference, strengthening our resolve to stop crime not lives; to build a death-penalty-free world!

I thank you.

Oct 2015 2

GCL Delegation in Guyana

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