“Rational Debate on Capital Punishment Lacking”

LONDON, Aug 31 (IPS) – Peter Hodgkinson founded the world’s first Centre for Capital Punishment Studies at the Westminster University Law School, London in 1992. The centre’s aim is to inform the death penalty debate from an evidence-led perspective.

It also stages a number of practical projects addressing such issues as the alternatives to the death penalty and services for the families of murder victims as well as the condemned. This is the approach which needs to be developed further, he says in an interview with Julio Godoy, European correspondent of IPS.

Death penalty supporters and abolitionists still rely on much “mythology” and irrational argument. “Too much discussion takes place at the emotional and high moral ground level and not enough cerebrally,” he says.

IPS: Over the past decade there has been an enormous increase in the number of countries abolishing the death penalty. You must see this as a tremendous achievement for the abolitionist movement?

PETER HODGKINSON: Removal of the death penalty must be welcomed. But one needs to examine in some detail the nature of the cause and effect relationship implicit in your question. I can recall a number of countries where replacement of the death penalty seemed unrelated to any specific ‘abolitionist’ campaign. It is important that the abolition industry rigorously scrutinises its strategies to determine the effect of its actions.

The Council of Europe is a case in point. The requirement for membership is suspension of executions, together with an undertaking to ratify the Sixth Protocol of the European Court of Human Rights within three years of accession. Countries were quite prepared to agree to this in order to join the club. As a death penalty ‘expert’ to the Council of Europe, my continuing regret is that the essential infrastructure changes for abolition and its aftermath were all too rarely resourced or put into practice. There continues to be an absence of rational, evidence-based debate about the alternative penal policy to capital punishment.

IPS: So despite the growing number of abolitionist countries, you are disappointed from this perspective?

PH: I believe that a holistic approach needs to be taken to the replacement of the death penalty. The issues I have just referred to should be addressed in this way. Adherence to capital punishment is symptomatic of states with questionable standards in the administration of justice. Removing the death penalty without addressing these fundamental flaws is an opportunity lost.

For example, I find it incomprehensible that abolition strategies give little or no thought to the replacement penalty after abolition. While progress to abolition is very welcomed, we need to keep in mind that more than 80 percent of the world’s population live in countries where there is still provision for the death penalty.

Paradoxically, abolition of the death penalty itself rarely brings about the improvements that one would expect from such a radical step. Our centre has always promoted a holistic approach in preparing for abolition and its aftermath. This approach requires that attention and resources are given to improving legal services, prison and police practices, crime victims’ services, humane and proportionate alternatives to the death sentence and a political philosophy that avoids reinforcing the death penalty mythology.

IPS: But even with all this, isn’t it going to be hard to convince the world’s population to support abolition?

PH: It is important to acknowledge that the citizens of any country contemplating the replacement of capital punishment have every right to be nervous about the repercussions of such a policy. This is not because there is any evidence of the benefits of capital punishment but because they have been persuaded by politicians that the death penalty is the solution to serious violent crime. Our centre’s response is to initiate what we call a ‘public and elites information and reassurance’ project. This strives to demonstrate to the public that removing the death penalty will not lead to civil society chaos.

IPS: You say penal policy is often left out of the debate on the death penalty. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is because it is so complicated?

PH: It is not inherently complicated. It is the duty and responsibility of governments to ensure that penal policy is informed by the data, not by populism. There is a wealth of evidence and experience about life and long-term imprisonment, for example. But one could be forgiven for thinking that policies are adopted at random and in the face of the evidence. Minimum prison sentence lengths as alternatives are plucked out of the sky. Most disturbing is the reliance on whole-of-life imprisonment.

There is some confusion in the term ‘life imprisonment’. This can be made clearer if you consider it as time spent in prison and time under supervision, subject to recall to prison, for the rest of one’s life. Neither the United Nations nor the Council of Europe guidelines on the management of life and long-term prisoners, concede the need for whole-of-life imprisonment, though they, and I, accept that there may be a few prisoners who may never be deemed safe to release back into the community. The Council of Europe guidelines should be compulsory reading for those shaping penal policy.

IPS: When should consideration be given to release a ‘lifer’ into the community?

PH: Subject to the circumstances in each individual case, judges should set the time to be served to meet the needs of deterrence and retribution. This is known as the tariff. Preparation for release back into the community should begin on day one of the sentence and actual release should be possible once the tariff has expired. Release, subject to rigorous support and supervision, should be based on assessment of risk of future offending and evidence of capacity to live a purposeful life in civil society. It should be subject to the possibility of being returned to prison should you violate your parole conditions.

The tariff serves as an encouragement and inducement to behave, to improve and address any problems identified as triggers to the offence. It also provides protection for the prison staff who manage the subtle balance between rewards and punishment. Whole-of-life imprisonment provides neither hope nor purpose to prisoners. It also puts prison officers at potentially greater risk.

IPS: Resistance to abolishing the death penalty often comes from people concerned about the victims. Should the abolitionist movement be campaigning for more to be done for the victims?

PH: With few, but notable, exceptions — I would single out the two U.S. organisations Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights — the abolition industry has failed to address the issue of the families of homicide victims and the condemned. Victims have always been exploited as part of the ‘law and order’ platform of populist politicians. Many hollow promises are made on their behalf. An expressed ‘concern’ for victims often belies the fact that little or no services are being provided for them. Even when there is action this can take the form of exploiting the victim further by ‘using’ them as part of the prosecution process. The families of murder victims continue to be marginalised.

IPS: The UN General Assembly will soon be voting on a resolution calling for a universal moratorium on state executions. Of course, this will not be binding on the world community. But do you think a resolution passed with a significant majority might lead to more countries abolishing the death penalty and focus minds on the often-ignored issues you have mentioned?

PH: I would love it to have this effect and it would represent a symbolic move in the right direction. Those promoting such a resolution are confident of an increase in co-sponsors and securing a majority, a measure perhaps of the increasing consensus about the need to suspend executions and restrict reliance on the death penalty. I am less certain that it will change the behaviour of countries wedded to capital punishment.