Is the death penalty an effective deterrent when it comes to violent crimes, such as murder?
In the United States, a country where capital punishment is still widely used, many are beginning to ask that very question.
An Angus Reid public opinion poll carried out late last year reveals that a growing number of Americans are questioning the effectiveness of an eye for an eye.
A survey of just over 1,000 U.S. adults showed that while most Americans support the death penalty in murder cases, they are divided on whether it acts as a deterrent for potential criminals.
“Respondents are evenly split on the overall effect of the death penalty,” Angus Reid said in a news release. “While 39 per cent of Americans think capital punishment acts as a deterrent, 35 per cent disagree. Republicans (52 per cent) are more likely to believe that the death penalty deters potential criminals than Independents (40 per cent) and Democrats (34 per cent).”
The poll also found that four-in-five respondents believe innocent people have been executed in the United States.
Across the country, 83 per cent of those polled support punishing homicide with the death penalty, while 13 per cent are opposed, results showed.
A majority of Americans would also rely on capital punishment to punish rape (62 per cent) and kidnapping (51 per cent), but not armed robbery (40 per cent).
What the poll amply illustrates is that even the mention of capital punishment sparks debate and, in a lot of cases, division.
Anytime an eye for an eye approach is utilized, emotions quickly rise to the surface.
In this country, the death penalty has been off the books since July 14, 1976.
That’s when the House of Commons used a free vote to pass Bill C-84, removing capital punishment from the Criminal Code of Canada.
For first-degree murder, death was replaced with mandatory life sentences with no chance of parole for 25 years.
According to Amnesty International, there were 710 executions in Canada between 1867 and 1962 with the last forced death carried out Dec. 11, 1962 when two men were hanged in Toronto. Between 1879 and 1960, there were 438 commutations of death sentences.
“Contrary to predictions by death penalty supporters, the homicide rate in Canada did not increase after abolition in 1976,” the organization points out on its website. “In fact, the Canadian murder rate declined slightly the following year (from 2.8 per 100,000 to 2.7).”
Amnesty International said the homicide rate fluctuated over the following two decades (between 2.2 and 2.8 per 100,000), but the general trend was clearly downwards.
“The overall conviction rate for first-degree murder doubled in the decade following abolition (from under 10 per cent to approximately 20 per cent), suggesting that Canadian juries are more willing to convict for murder now that they are not compelled to make life-and-death decisions.”
According to Amnesty, a national poll conducted in June 1995 found that 69 per cent of Canadians moderately or strongly favoured the return of the death penalty, exactly the same level of support as 20 years ago. A poll three years later showed a virtual split on the topic.
Will we see a return of the death penalty in this country?
It’s highly unlikely.
But the debate is sure to continue from time to time.
According to an age old Hindu proverb, it is no sin to kill a killer.
But French philosopher and writer Voltaire looked at it differently.
He wrote: “Let the punishment of criminals be useful. A hanged man is good for nothing, but a man condemned to public works still serves the country and is a living person.”
If the recent U.S. poll can be used as an accurate device for measuring what people in general think, it’s obvious that capital punishment is not only still on peoples’ minds, it’s also a topic capable of stirring up strong emotions.