Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Death penalty: Little deterrent effect

When Andrew Hammel called European politicians and scholars who contributed to the abolition of the death penalty in Europe “civilized rebels”, it was not without consideration. The elites in the UK, Germany and France, among other nations, decided to completely abolish capital punishment despite the huge support among the public for retaining the death penalty. Thousands of kilometers away, in 1993, according to scholar David T. Johnson, Hong Kong joined the bandwagon despite the fact that two thirds of the public supported the harshest punishment. These countries are often referred to as abolitionists, whereas those that still impose the death penalty are called retentionists.

Indonesia, along with 12 other Asian countries such as China, Singapore and Malaysia, impose the death penalty for extraordinary crimes, including drug offenses. After a five-year moratorium, Indonesia reinstated capital punishment in 2013. As a result, six drug offenders, five of whom were foreign nationals, were executed by a firing squad last January. Another batch of executions was carried out Tuesday for 8 of the 10 death row convicts, including the Australian Bali Nine drug chiefs duo, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

Amid the strained relationship with Australia Indonesian government stands firmly on its argument that executing drug traffickers has a deterrent effect. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has even reiterated that the country is in a war on drugs, from which 50 people die every day. Despite the tough debate, one question remains: does the death penalty deter drug traffickers?

The answer is, no.

Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia Law School analyzed whether capital punishment had a deterrent effect by comparing the experiences in Singapore and Indonesia.

Notwithstanding Singapore’s much smaller population, the city-state executed almost 15 times as many convicts as Indonesia did from 1999-2005. Fagan argued that if capital punishment had a deterrent effect, there would be less drug trafficking and higher drug prices in Singapore. However, the prices for cocaine and heroin during 2003-2006 were significantly higher in Indonesia than in Singapore, and drugs were generally more prevalent in Singapore at the time.

In Malaysia, regardless of the fact that more than 200 people had been executed since 1975, the International Narcotics Control Board’s report in 2004 suggested that the availability of heroin in Malaysia had increased, due to the rising demand for the drug.

Therefore, as the two studies have shown, executing people is not the answer to deterring drug crimes. Although there is no reliable and accurate survey showing the stance of the Indonesian public in opposing or favoring the death penalty for the Bali Nine duo, political elites seem to be united in supporting retention of the death penalty. Nevertheless, as many countries (or states) have experienced, public opinion should not be the main hurdle to abolishing capital punishment. Then governor of New Jersey, Jon Corzine, went against public opinion when he signed a milestone bill on Dec. 18, 2007, to end the death penalty in his state, leaving an important legacy for the American capital punishment landscape.

Corzine’s measure to put life imprisonment without parole in place of capital punishment was made in spite the fact that the decision was opposed by a majority of people by a margin of 53 percent to 39 percent, according to a poll by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. Despite the low public support, Corzine successfully led his state into the ranks of the abolitionists, whereas in general the US remains a retentionist nation.In his article Asia’s Declining Death Penalty, David T. Johnson argues that unlike Europe and Africa, Asia’s most important factor in changing the death penalty law is still national (domestic) prerogatives, not regional or international. Thus, pressing Indonesia to abolish its death penalty, let alone using threats, will likely be of no avail. Rather, intensive dialogue and discussions with Indonesian elites should be one of the solutions to sharing the understanding of the “capital punishment has no deterrence” argument.

Abolishing the death penalty may not be politically popular. Yet, the risk must be taken in order to respect the most basic human right — the right to life. The Indonesian President and political elites have to be brave enough to become “civilized rebels” in order to respect the sanctity of such a right.

The writer is a journalist, who is now studying political communication at the University of Sheffield, UK. - See more at:

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