EXECUTIVE Director of the Justice Institute and international lawyer Melinda Janki believes that the death penalty is probably the most murderous symbol of inequality.She shared her views during a panel discussion titled, “The Death Penalty as a deterrent; does it work” at the Caribbean Regional Conference on Abolition of the Death Penalty which concluded yesterday.
The death penalty is expected to serve as a deterrent to murder, but Janki pointed out that from all that has been happening in Guyana and the countries that retain it, it has not been working.
She told a gathering at the Arthur Chung International Conference Centre that every time someone is murdered, it means that the death penalty has failed in that case. And there are quite a number of countries in the Caribbean where this problem continues to happen.
Using statistics to support her argument, Janki noted that in 2013, 31 people were murdered in Barbados; 137 in The Bahamas; 130 in Guyana; and 1133 in Jamaica. All these countries, she said, have the death penalty. From these statistics, the penalty has not served as a deterrent, but has failed in the worst possible way.
By September this year, Guyana had recorded 108 murders; a clear indicator, Janki said, that capital punishment is not working here, nor in the Caribbean states where it is still in effect.
In contrast, other countries in the Caribbean which have abolished the penalty have been experiencing a different result.
The Caribbean consists of 25 independent nations and 14 territories under the jurisdiction of France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. The majority of them have abolished the death penalty.
In 2013, Anguilla recorded one murder, Montserrat one, Martinique 17, Guadeloupe 32, and Haiti 689. These statistics, Janki maintained, illustrate that it is not a requirement to keep the death penalty to have a lower murder rate.
OUTSIDE THE CARIBBEAN
And outside of the Caribbean, it has worked, she said. In Europe, for instance, from 1995 to 2015, when Slovenia abolished the death penalty, its murder rate dropped from two to 0.4; in the Czech Republic, it went from two to 0.8; while the rate in Estonia fell from 20.1 to 4.8.
“This is part of the trend in Europe; I am not saying that the death penalty caused it, but you can abolish it, and the death penalty will go down,” Janki said.
While it would not be fair to compare the well-off countries in Europe with those in the Caribbean, according to the Justice Institute Director, there is evidence to support the abolition of the death penalty, even when the highly developed countries are compared.
She pointed out that the murder rate in Denmark, which does not have the death penalty, is 0.3, compared to the U.S., which has kept the penalty but has a murder rate of 5.8, which is about 19 times higher than Denmark.
The international lawyer is of the view that to end murder, governments have to look at who is doing the killing and why. Murders have been linked to drugs, guns, and inequality in society among other factors.
“The death penalty does not stop people from taking drugs; it does not stop people from using guns; it does not enable the police to catch criminals and have them convicted. It does not make society more equal; the death penalty is actually the most murderous symbol of inequality. The rich don’t get hanged; only the poor and the marginalised. Capital punishment means that those with the capital don’t get the punishment,” Janki said in her passionate presentation.
Guyana is the only country in South America that has not abolished capital punishment. Suriname was the latest country in South America to strike the death penalty law off its statute books. But though Guyana has the law, in practice, there is an unwritten and unspoken moratorium in effect.
For some decades, Guyana has not applied punishment by way of death. And in 2010, through wide consultation, an amendment was made to the Criminal Law Offences Act, removing the mandatory death penalty for murder.
The courts in Guyana are empowered to examine the circumstances of the crime and apply different penalties.
But Janki pointed out that Guyana inherited the death penalty law from Britain when it gained independence in 1966, and it is not a law a free Guyana chose and should not keep.
“Keeping the death penalty stops society from looking at what causes murder,” she said. “How long would the people in the English-speaking Caribbean hide behind the death penalty rather than force politicians to deal with the guns, the drugs, the corruptions, inequality, violence? she asked. “I personally applaud the abolition of the death penalty in all cases,” she said. “It does not work; and has no place in civilised society.”
Janki was well supported by fellow panelist Leela Ramdeen of the Greater Caribbean for Life, who stressed that there is no evidence that the death penalty prevents murder.
But as a member of the audience pointed out, the former President Desmond Hoyte, back in 1985, hanged two persons when “kick-down-the-door” robberies were on the increase, and the crime rate dropped dramatically.
The panellists were, however, of the belief that the rate did not drop because of the hanging, but because the bandits were afraid of being caught.
“Politicians support the death penalty in a symbolic way to show that they are tackling crime,” Ramdeen said, adding that the fear of apprehension and swift punishment have proven to be more forceful deterrents to crime.
Barbados’s Senior Council, Andrew Pilgrim, who was also a member of the panel, lamented the fact that the situation is the same in his country as well, saying that the Barbados justice system does not make any distinction among criminals.
The law, he said, must be well thought out, based on rational behaviours, and should not lean towards revenge.
Sadly, too, he said, in Barbados, if the police say a person killed someone, it is enough for the accused to be hanged.
Pilgrim also noted that the legal aid system in the Caribbean is limited, and the belief that it really benefits the poor is but a myth.
By Tajeram Mohabir