Skip to content ↓

Why we sanction?

On 13th August 1964, shortly after 8 o’clock in the morning, Peter Anthony Allen, and Gwynne Owen Evans both died. Peter Allen was in Liverpool, Gwynne Evans in Manchester.

They were both taken, at the same time, from their prison cells in Walton and Strangeways jails, to a place of execution, where a noose was placed around each of their necks. A trapdoor opened beneath their feet, they dropped a distance of 6 feet completing the hangman’s fracture and ending their lives. They were the last people in the UK to be executed for the crime of murder. That is because 50 years ago, on 9th November 1965, the death penalty was suspended in England, Scotland, and Wales. Over the next few years, this suspension was confirmed in the whole of the United Kingdom. Capital punishment was totally abolished. In the last 59 years, horrendous crimes have been committed. The murder of innocent children. Police officers murdered in the line of duty. Crimes of extreme cruelty that have not resulted in death but have altered the lives of the victims. Doctors and other medical staff who have been found guilty of the murders of, sometimes, dozens of patients in their care. Sometimes these crimes have served to rekindle the debate about capital punishment. Surely there are some crimes so unforgiveable that the perpetrators deserve the ultimate punishment.

Last August NHS nurse Lucy Letby became only the third woman alive to be handed a whole-life jail term after being sentenced for murdering seven babies and trying to kill another six at the Countess of Chester hospital. But for an outraged British public it seems that sentence is not enough. A new poll of 1,500 people commissioned by The Spectator magazine shows that 66 per cent of us believe that the death penalty is a just punishment for Letby. The poll comes at a time when support for capital punishment has risen across the board. Half the public (49%) would support reinstating the death penalty for ‘any murder’, a figure that has risen by eight points since February. More than half 52% back capital punishment for anyone who assassinates a Royal a figure that rises to 54% for those who kill a police officer, 59% for a multiple murderer and 63% for a child murderer. Increasing support for the death sentence is not limited to murder with 59% backing capital punishment for those convicted of terrorism or multiple rapes.

Capital punishment, the intentional taking of an individual’s life in response to crimes they have committed is not an intrinsic good, good in and of itself. Supporters of the death sentence argue that like other forms of punishment for example imprisonment it is an extrinsic good, good not because of the act itself but because of the benefits it produces.

Justifications of punishment usually fall into one of five criteria.

  • Retribution – The belief that criminals should be punished as payback for the crimes they have committed.
  • Vindication – Punishment is necessary to ensure that people have respect for the rule of law which is the basis of civilised society.
  • Protection – punishments can be used to prevent criminals from committing future crimes and shield society from anti-social behaviour
  • Deterrent – The punishment a criminal receives should send a clear message to potential offenders about the negative consequences for them of committing a crime thereby putting them off committing crimes in the future.
  • Rehabilitation/reform – Any punishment that criminals receive should help them to change and become a better person so that they don’t want to commit crimes in the future.

When considering whether or not to allow the state to take the life of convicted criminals one should consider its effectiveness, relative to other available sanctions, in achieving retribution, vindication, protection deterrent or rehabilitation.

The biblical book of Leviticus states

“fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth….whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.

But for many the truism that two wrongs don’t make a right and the wisdom contained in the famous quote attributed to Confucius

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

Undermine retribution as a justification for the death penalty and punishment more generally. Revenge does not undo the harm done but piles misery upon misery.

For many commentators the moral ambiguity of a position that maintains that taking a human life is such a significant transgression that the appropriate response is to take a human life! Is detrimental to our respect for the rule of law.

Taking the life of a violent criminal serves to protect society. The executed are unable to repeat offend, but this objective can be achieved, as in the case of Lucy Lettby, through the imposition of whole-life sentences.

Deterrence is probably the most expressed rationale for the death penalty. The threat of being executed in the future will be sufficient to cause a significant number of people to refrain from committing a heinous crime they had otherwise planned. A 2009 survey of criminologists revealed that over 88% believed that the death penalty was not a deterrent to murder. Statistics from the United States seem to confirm this perspective. The murder rate in non-death penalty states like Connecticut has remained consistently lower than the rate in States with the Death Penalty like Texas. Internationally statistics also show that if anything those countries that do not have the death penalty have a lower murder rate. Thus, it would seem that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent, and its advocates must seek an alternative justification for its use.

A death sentence allows no possibility that an individual can change. There are countless examples of men and women who have admitted their guilt, reformed, and gone on to have a positive impact on society. Surely there is no crime that is unforgiveable, and all who repent deserve a second chance?

Further arguments against capital punishment are that it is irreversible. What if there’s a miscarriage of justice? Unfortunately, there have been many examples of this. DNA tests have called into question many historic sentences. Some of these have been given to alleged murderers who have subsequently been shown to be innocent of their crimes. They have been released and allowed to continue their lives. The sentence of someone who has been executed and is later proved innocent cannot be released. A death sentence cannot be repealed. The death penalty targets the poor, those who cannot afford good legal council are statistically more likely to be executed for the same crime. There is a saying in the United States, capital punishment means that those without the capital get the punishment.

Convicted of seven counts of murder and six of attempted murder should Lucy Lettby be executed? To take a human life is wrong, a wrong that can only be justified by the greater good it would achieve. So, no matter the abhorrent nature of her crimes it seems difficult to justify the state taking her life rather than imposing a whole-life jail sentence.

Thankfully, we don’t have the death penalty here in school! However, the question behind the capital punishment debate, about the purpose of punishment is relevant. When there are instances of bad behaviour, cheating, violence, prejudice, or any of the other various ways in which pupils violate the school’s code of conduct, what should the consequences be?

The most effective consequences are, are those intended to rehabilitate, to change attitudes and behaviours by helping pupils to understand how and why there are more positive, more constructive ways to act. We want whenever possible to give the opportunity to walk a slightly different path. But whilst we hope that sanctions will serve the needs of the individual perpetrator by giving them a chance to change their behaviours for the better, punishments: detention, temporary or permanent exclusion, loss of privileges like representing the school on the sports field or in the consort hall or participating in educational visits, also consider the needs of the community as well as the individual. They may aim to protect by denying the individual opportunity to behave poorly in the future. They are intended to communicate that negative choices come with consequences and thereby deter others from behaving the same way. They also aim to ensure that we have respect for our code of conduct.