The news today hasn’t exactly been the most reassuring. Reports of gruesome crimes like the skinning of the victim in Cebu have triggered a lot of fear and discontent. Wild anger against heinous crimes has rapidly been surfacing. On social media, there are aggressive arguments on the merits of the death penalty.
Given this, we have to ask the question — is it time to bring back the death penalty?
Let’s talk about justice as it ought to be: retributive, commensurate, and a deterrent. While criminal law may adhere to many different principles, these 3 are some of the best known and best understood. They’re often used as standards to judge wether an act or sentence was just and have long been brought up in discussions regarding the death penalty. Not least because they can be applied to both sides of the conversation.
So what do we mean when we say that justice ought to be retributive? Plainly speaking, retribution is about inflicting punishment against someone or something. Retributive justice, then, states that “the best response to a crime is a punishment proportional to the offense.” It believes that punishment, in whatever form is appropriate, must be dealt with in order for justice to be served.
The argument in favor of the death penalty is intuitively linked to retribution. Many believe that heinous crimes can only be addressed by equally severe punishment. If retribution is about doling out punishment, then death as the ultimate punishment is only proper for the ultimate crimes.
This is closely linked to justice being commensurate, as well. Crimes such as murder, assault, and rape are believed to only find their equal in execution. It goes back to the age-old adage of ‘an eye for an eye’.
However, this saying is actually one of the more widely misinterpreted phrases. People take it to mean one action’s equal is the same, exact action in return when it simply says that justice “should punish neither too leniently or too severely.” The difference is that a punishment which is ‘just right’ is not necessarily an identical reaction.
This is where the arguments against the death penalty come in. Those who oppose it believe the sentence of death can never be retributive nor commensurate because it is so often a tool of vengeance. The aim of retribution is to reestablish justice. If these can be done through life-term imprisonment, then what’s the point of the death penalty?
Prison already serves as the removal of the rights we afford the ordinary citizen. We take away their freedom, their choices, their ability to live in any meaningful way. Many would call that the equivalent of any heinous crime. Those who continue to call for the death sentence despite this do it out of an urge to retaliate — to hurt in the same way that hurt has been inflicted.
But justice isn’t about revenge. It’s about putting wrongs to right. And it does so without the death penalty in the most equitable way possible.
Additionally, a strong contention against how commensurate the sentence is is the question of innocence. However much we trust the justice system we still have to allow space for human error. The rate of judicial error of our Supreme Court in death penalty cases is 71.77% (People v Mateo, 2004). Let that sink in.
This becomes worse in a country like the Philippines, where the odds are already stacked against the people. Access to good legal counsel is expensive, and no one can deny the reality of bribery and politics being present in the courts. The law, whether inherently or by design, has come to favor the rich. Such dangers have to be warned against when talking about ending a life. The State ought always to err on the side of caution.
In terms of deterrence, many argue that punishment so severe is sure to discourage people from committing heinous crimes. The logic is simple: people wouldn’t risk getting caught and put to the metaphorical sword for a single offense. Their fear of the death penalty would force potential criminals to reconsider their choices and reform into law-abiding citizens.
Despite the logic seeming sound, the numbers work against this belief. According to Amnesty International, over 88% of criminologists do not believe the death penalty to serve as deterrence to heinous crimes. They say this based on the fact that in a comparison of murder rates in the United States over the span of 10 years, the rate has remained consistently lower in states without the death penalty versus states with it.
As Chel Diokno, founding dean of the De La Salle University College of Law said, “it’s not the severity of the punishment, but the certainty of the punishment that deters crime.” Perhaps another way to solve the Philippines’ problem of crime is to look at strengthening our institutions of justice instead of applying yet another band-aid solution.
What do you think?