Evidence and equality: The case against the death penalty ― Andrew Goledzinowski

OCTOBER 10 ― As we mark the World Day Against the Death Penalty today, I wanted to reflect on the reasons why the Australian government opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, for all people.

The death penalty is cruel and inhumane. It offers no possibility of rehabilitation. 

There is no conclusive evidence that the death penalty actually deters crime.

The death penalty is also an unequal punishment. It is disproportionately used against people from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds. 

These arguments have convinced more than two thirds of countries in the world ― 142 total ― to abolish the death penalty in law or in practice. Only 56 countries and territories still uphold and use the death penalty.

I read with interest the study by Malaysian think-tank The Centre entitled How do Malaysians really feel about the death penalty? published in June 2020.

The study found that a small majority (60 per cent) of Malaysians feel that the death penalty is necessary but many (31 per cent) are neutral on the topic. Amongst respondents, there was a strong belief that the death penalty deters crime, despite an absence of evidence.

The Centre also found that there was greater support for the death penalty for very violent and personal crimes, such as murder, compared with drug-related offences. Except for the most violent and intentional crimes, only a small proportion of Malaysians (less than 15 per cent) support the mandatory death penalty.

Australia’s experience in abolishing the death penalty can provide important insights into these findings.

During the period when Australian state governments abolished the death penalty, our public support for the death penalty was similar to Malaysia’s today.

Around 67 per cent of Australians polled in 1947 supported the death penalty for murder. Support had dropped to 23 per cent by 2009.

Abolishing the death penalty has not increased the crime rate in Australia. The National Homicide Monitoring Programme run by the Australian Institute of Criminology shows the rate of homicide incidents has decreased significantly in the last three decades.

In Malaysia, the death penalty is not predominantly used to punish the most violent of crimes such as murder or rape, but drug offences. As shown by the statistics provided to Parliament by Minister Datuk Takiyuddin Hassan on July 13, 2020, of the 775 prisoners on death row in Malaysia 61 per cent have been sentenced under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952.

As noted in the report Drug Offences and the Death Penalty in Malaysia: Fair trial rights and ramifications, launched by Monash University in May 2020, in Malaysia, “a large proportion of those on death row have less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds.”

Those who wish to retain the death penalty may argue that there is no downside for Malaysia in retaining it; that giving the criminal justice system as many tools as possible can only be a good thing. However, abolishing the death penalty could actually help Malaysia tackle crime. 

Organised criminal activity today ― including drug crime ― is complex and borderless. Criminal groups can operate both nationally and internationally. Partnerships between countries to prevent crime and disrupt criminal syndicates are more important today than ever before.

The position of the Australian government is that government co-operation needs to take into account our opposition to the death penalty. As a result, Australian agencies are limited in the support they can provide to their Malaysian counterparts for crimes which can incur the death penalty.

If Malaysia were to abolish the death penalty, the amount of information, intelligence and assistance we could provide to help Malaysian authorities investigate crimes would increase.

The justice system of every country around the world must juggle competing principles of punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation and restoration for victims.

The experience of Australia, as of many countries around the world, is that you do not need the death penalty to fulfil all of these principles while creating a just, safe society.

* Andrew Goledzinowski is the Australian High Commissioner to Malaysia. Follow him on Twitter.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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