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Tuesday, 11 January 2011

My stance on the death penalty.

When people think of the death penalty they often respond emotionally. They may think of how they would feel if their child was a victim of a paedophile murderer or similar: very difficult to detach from.

However, when considering as big an issue as this I feel it is important to detach somewhat emotionally to review all of the related factors and issues. I then think its good to put the emotion back in to 'test' how the rational conclusion feels.

The factors I feel are core to this debate that I will discuss here are: safety of convictions, deterrence, human rights, state power and justice.

Safety of convictions

For me this is the deciding factor. I am against the death penalty. The risk of convicting and executing an innocent person is, in my opinion, not worth any benefit that having the death penalty may bring. Unforunately, that risk is great. Forensic science, though fantastic, is still flawed. In the UK (and the US) there operates an adversarial system of law which further contributes to an insecurity in convictions.

I cannot envisage a time where enough convictions could be 100% certain to justify a death penalty without infringing very greatly upon the civil liberties of us all.

Deterrence

Many people argue that having the death penalty deters people from committing crimes. However, studies have shown that this simply isn't true. In countries with the death penalty crime and murder rates are no lower than in countries without - indeed, some have even higher crime and murder rates. In addition the studies show that the death penalty offers no greater deterrence against crime than life imprisonment.

This information shows that in the US states with the death penalty actually have a consistently higher murder rate than states that do not have the death penalty. Some criminologists argue that the death penalty has a brutalising effect on people, thus creating a more violent society. 

Human rights

Human rights are often denigrated in our society as the preserve of the 'loony left' that continually stop justice from being done. In my view human rights are important. Human rights are what help guarantee us all a basic standard of living and of security from the state. To deny one section of human rights is to devalue the meaning of those rights for th rest of us.

State power

The issue of state power over its citizens is a pretty big one for me. In the UK we are lucky that while we may often be dissatisfied with our government it does not terrorise us. When considering how quickly other liberal democracies have fallen into totalitarianism it is my view that it is best not to advance things which could make this process quicker or easier. This is not a paranoid stance. I believe in a limited state and a larger private sphere. Things like the death penalty (giving the state a right to murder its citizens) impact on this.

In a situation of a corrupt government and a corrupt judiciary having the machinery for state execution in place (perhaps initially with public support) wouldn't be a good thing.

Justice

Many people argue that the only way for there to be real justice for victims of horrendous crimes is for the perpetrator to be executed. I fully understand that perspective. I often get an emotional response in the same direction when I hear about horrible things: I would argue its a somewhat natural human reaction to horrendous things.

However, that doesn't make it the most healthy thing to do for our society. Execution does not reverse the crime or make anything materially better for the victim or the victim's family. In my view ensuring that the perpetrator is removed from society and does not have the freedom to hurt more people should be the core issue. In the case of severe crimes life long imprisonment without parole would serve this purpose. Revenge is tempting but overall not productive.

In conclusion:

Perpetrators of horrendous crime should be locked up for the rest of their natural lives. The risks of executing innocent people, sacrificing the human rights of all and giving the state too much power are too great to justify urges for revenge and a disproved deterrence effect.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Who is responsible for democracy?

For me this question is absolutely core. It influences my behaviour on a daily basis and is a source of much frustration. I am going to examine the relationship between the public, the media and politicians and the effect this has on the quality of democracy.

The problem with democracy, friends, is that it belongs to us all. We are all of us responsible for keeping it healthy.

I very strongly believe that a politically active electoral is a vital part of the functioning of democracy. By politically active I don't just mean an electorate that votes, though in this country higher turnouts would be a good start!

I define a politically active electorate as an electorate who engage with the issues of the day. People who critically assess the information that comes their way and then forms good quality opinions with depth. People who look for truth and reason, people who engage with their local communities. People who don't just moan about bad things, but try to be part of a solution.

I believe that a politically active electorate, in their search for good quality information to fuel their well-formed opinions, must surely lead to a good quality media. The demand for real news must be met and the overall quality of reporting improve. The process may be slow, but it would happen.

This is in contrast to the current situation whereby so many seek news as entertainment: news to be angry or outraged at, news to shake their head about, news to say "have you heard.." and have a gossip about. News about things which make them annoyed but about which they ask no questions and conduct no basic analysis of. Certainly not news which makes them get up and make a change.

It is my view that the demand for news as entertainment and the subsequent dumbing down of almost all media outlets directly contributes to the situation that so many people are upset about:

Lying, cheating, fiddling, untrustworthy politicians.

Is it really a surprise that when we demand so little from our press, in turn our press demands so little from our politicians? Instead of focussing on the big issues we get media orchestrated scandals. Instead of in depth debates of contributing factors we get a celebrity culture. Instead of the real issues of the day we get diversions. And we lap it up.

A good quality media is vital part of maintaining accountability of politicians. To get a good quality media we have to demand it. We have to gravitate to those channels and publications which provide good quality reporting and move away from those that do not.

Of course, a politically active electorate could lead to all kinds of other wonderful things: more community based solutions, more accountability on the election trail, a higher voter turnout, more debate with more sensible outcomes.

The view of an idealist perhaps, but I don't think it is particularly crazy to suggest people start taking responsibility for assessing the information that they are fed. Look for truth.