Changi Prison - The Age
Click the photo of Singapore’s Changi Prison to read The precision of ritual in the gallows’ shadow

Reconsider mandatory death penalty, ST Forum, Straits Times print edition, 30 Nov 2007

I REFER to the article, ‘The moral case for the death penalty’ (ST, Nov 24).

Before we even begin debating abolition in Singapore, it is important to consider the mandatory nature of the death penalty here.

Singapore makes the death penalty mandatory for murder, and certain instances of drug trafficking.

This means that courts cannot take into account mitigating circumstances in sentencing. Judges are bound by statute to pass the same sentence on a first-time impoverished teenage drug trafficker as they are on a seasoned drug smuggler: death.

One senior local lawyer, Senior Counsel K. S. Rajah, has even labelled the mandatory death penalty ‘The Unconstitutional Punishment’.

Considering the severity of the punishment and the lack of judicial discretion in its imposition, there should be a correspondingly more robust justification of the mandatory death penalty.

It is imperative for our Government to commission a comprehensive review on whether mandatory sentencing has made a meaningful dent in drug-trafficking rates.

It would be helpful for the Government to begin by publishing a breakdown of executions and correlate it to the relevant crime rates.

However, even if the deterrent effect of the death penalty is proven, this does not mean that the death penalty is necessarily the most effective way to deter crime, let alone the most moral.

We need to remember that the death penalty is only one of many deterrent options in the judicial arsenal to fight crime. Introducing the mandatory death penalty for drink-driving would certainly have a revolutionary effect in reducing drink-driving deaths. However, we need to look beyond a two-dimensional analysis of cause and effect when considering criminal law.

As we were reminded in the debate over Section 377A of the Penal Code – a law criminalising gay sex – the criminal law is a reflection of society’s values. Are we going to be a society that is blindly tough on crime at the expense of the famous dictum, Let the punishment fit the crime?

In many circumstances, the mandatory death penalty prevents judges from doing the latter, and hence should be reconsidered.

Choo Zheng Xi

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Misleading evidence in support of death penalty, ST Forum online, Straits Times, 30 Nov 2007

I REFER to Dr Andy Ho’s commentary, ‘The moral case for the death penalty’ (ST, Nov 24). Some of the evidence he provides to buttress his claim is quite misleading.

Dr Joanna Shepherd’s study is flawed in that the instruments it uses provide vastly fluctuating results over small ranges of data. This criticism comes from Wharton Professor Justin Wolfers and Yale Professor John Donahue. They also point out that the regression formula used in the Shepherd study has been grossly misapplied, and correct application would lend credence to abolitionism, rather than retentionism. They highlight another study done by researchers Peter Passell and John Taylor, indicating that homicidal rates dropped uniformly in all American states in the mid-1960s. They argue that homicide rates in states that retained and abolished the death penalty changed in an identical pattern, contrary to what studies like Dr Shepherd’s show.

Dr Ho’s example of Britain can be called to question under similar terms of reference. The escalating conflict in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in Northern Ireland would probably better account for the increasing disorder in prisons, rather than the abolition of the death penalty in 1965. One should also note a separate data study by the New Zealand Police Force, which showed that all crime rates fell significantly following abolition in New Zealand.

But more problematic is Dr Ho’s chief premise. His utilitarian analogy prompts the question: Is pushing the man into the path of the trolley the only way to prevent death? And are the five people nothing but mirages, created by the zeal of retentionists like Dr Ho? After all, not everyone is Jack the Ripper. Studies have shown that people who kill have been driven to kill by passion.

Nonetheless, Dr Ho makes one important observation at the end of his piece, which governments should heed when devising ever harsher punishments for terrorists. He cautions that over-severe punishments may lead to a counter-deterrent effect, because they allow the terrorist organisations to fan up waves of discontent.

In conclusion, I hope Dr Ho and his cohort will carefully reconsider the merits of holding on to a medieval stricture.

Clement Wee Hong En

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That capital punishment saves lives is not enough, ST Forum online, Straits Times, 30 Nov 2007

THE moratorium on capital punishment, approved last week by the United Nations General Assembly by 99 to 52 votes (with 33 countries abstaining), is a curious development in world politics.

Given its record on executions, it is only logical that Singapore would spearhead the fight against this non-binding resolution (see article by Andy Ho, ‘The moral case for the death penalty’; ST, Nov 24).

It was the title of the article that prompted me to read it. I even went to the Web and did some further reading on the study quoted by Dr Joanna Shepherd and related literature.

One could say, therefore, that the title served its purpose. However, I must admit the content of the article did not help me at all to see any strong ‘moral case’ for the death penalty.

All I can conclude is that, if we accept at face value the reliability of the findings of this and other studies – something not beyond debate but which, for the sake of the argument, I don’t want to contest here – then there is statistical evidence that supports the deterrent effect of capital punishment and that, therefore, it would make pragmatic sense to use such a deterrent.

I understand Dr Ho when he advocates that ‘the penalty should remain on the books, if only to use for the worst of the worst’.

But I fail to see the qualification and logic of his conclusion where he writes: ‘This, I think, is the position morally required of all governments because some innocent lives can thereby be saved.’

The contention (or even the fact) that innocent lives could be saved by laws demanding capital punishment for certain crimes does not in itself lead to any moral requirement for a government to enact such a law.

At the most, there might be a demand of logic or expediency, not a moral demand.

What is more: By the same argument – saving some innocent lives – one might very well advocate capital punishment for any form of grossly reckless or dangerous behaviour, like for drink driving when it causes fatalities in an accident.

In sum: It takes more than a good effect before we can justify an extreme remedy, something that could be used ‘for the worst of the worst’.

Paul E. Staes

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