There are 382 of them. That’s the number of people killed in Britain between 2012 and 2016 by criminals on probation.
Those people could still be alive if the death penalty were still an option. However it hasn’t been since its abolition in 1965. By sheer coincidence of course, the murder rate has more than doubled since then.
In 1965, the British experienced an epiphany. What had been seen as a perfectly valid punishment for murder since time immemorial instantly became inhuman and unimaginable. Those who remembered Saul becoming Paul by falling off his horse on the road to Damascus may have had a sense of déjà vu.
Quoting statistics in the face of such a revelatory experience sounds crass. But still, out of interest, how many criminals had been executed in the preceding five years, between 1960 and 1964, to give the British their Damascene experience?
Twenty-one. One-eighteenth of those murdered in the past five years by those who should have been executed, but weren’t. Interesting arithmetic, wouldn’t you say?
The deterrent value of the death penalty is often doubted, but one thing is beyond dispute. It definitely deters the executed criminal.
He isn’t going to go out on probation and kill again, not in this life at any rate. This is no mean achievement, considering the numbers cited above.
Even arguments against broader deterrence strike me as counterintuitive. It’s psychologically implausible that a potential murderer would be deterred by a prison sentence with a generous tariff as effectively as by the prospect of a hangman’s noose.
However, deterrence isn’t the only argument for the death penalty, nor even the best one. There are many others, which is why the death penalty was never regarded as cruel and unusual punishment in the founding legal code of the West, the Scripture.
When society and community were more than just figures of speech, it was understood that murder sent shock waves throughout the community. The amplitude of those destructive waves could be attenuated only by a punishment commensurate with the crime. Without it, the agitated community would run the risk of never recovering its eirenic order.
Having said that, even a dyed-in-the-wool conservative may argue against the death penalty, citing, for example, the corrupting effect it has on the executioner, or else doubting the right of fallible men to pass irreversible judgement.
Such arguments are noble, but they aren’t modern arguments. For it’s not just the death penalty that today’s lot are uncomfortable with, but the very idea of punishment.
More and more, they betray their Rousseauan genealogy by insisting that people are all innately good and, if some behave badly, they must be victims of correctable social injustice. More and more, one detects a belief that justice is an antiquated notion, and law is only an aspect of the social services.
Last year I was exposed to that view on the BBC Sunday Morning Live show, when debating the issue of imprisonment with a ‘human rights development worker’, whatever that means. Propping up her corner was a gentleman who had once served time and had since developed an understandable interest in the penitentiary system.
It turned out that they and I differed on the very definition of prison. Rather than an instrument of justice, they saw it as an educational and therapeutic facility for the socioeconomically disadvantaged. It logically followed that we have too many people in prison: other institutions would serve the educational purposes better.
My contention was that protecting us from criminals is among the state’s few raisons d’être. Otherwise it’s not immediately clear whence the state would derive its legitimacy. Therefore the number of prisoners is a moot point. We should have as many as it takes for the state to protect us.
Prison’s principal role is to serve justice by punishing crimes. Rehabilitation, a notion dear to my opponents’ hearts, would be welcome, but it comes far down on the list of desiderata, if at all.
The ex-convict was aghast. Didn’t I know that most released prisoners reoffend within a few months? The human rights person nodded vigorously and looked at me in a way that suggested that in my case she could reassess her staunch opposition to the death penalty.
Logic never being a strong point on the political left, they obviously didn’t realise that everything they were saying supported my argument. After all, the commitment to mythical rehabilitation has been practised for at least two generations. Surely the growing recidivism rates prove it isn’t working? And if most released prisoners reoffend, shouldn’t they stay in prison longer?
Rehabilitation isn’t what prisons are for, and not everyone can be rehabilitated anyway. Evil is an integral part of human nature, and some people have so much of it that they are irredeemable this side of heaven.
Practising what Rousseau preached is a strong factor in making Britain crime-ridden, with the murder rate climbing. If we practised what Jesus Christ preached instead, we wouldn’t gasp at the very thought of the death penalty.
We’d know that executing a murderer doesn’t contradict Christ’s commandment to love him. “Love thy enemy” means asking God to save him from hell in the next life. Executing him saves us from him in this life. First things first.