Capital punishment and the UK – should it be reintroduced?

In response to the recent sentencing of Sarah Everard’s killer, Wayne Couzens, debate around the death penalty has risen to new heights, with the question being asked: should it be reintroduced in the UK?

The death penalty was banned under UK law in 1998 through the Human Rights Act. It stated that all humans have a right to life and the right to freedom from torture and inhuman treatment, and capital punishment is regarded as a violation of both. However, the cruel actions of Couzens, and the tragic and brutal nature of Sarah’s death, has led some to question whether every person has the privilege to maintain these rights. 

Morally, there are two sides to the argument. It all boils down to whether you believe that the saying ‘an eye for an eye’ is correct. People who argue against capital punishment state that if killing someone for killing someone is legal, then this legitimises the very behaviour they are seeking to repress; it is itself a counterproductive punishment in the moral message it conveys. However, on the other side, supporters of the death penalty argue that someone who has murdered has forfeited their own right to life. They also state that it is a just form of retribution – people must be punished for their wrongdoing, and their punishment should be in proportion to the severity of their crime.

Supporters of capital punishment also tend to use the argument of deterrence. They claim that the law has a uniquely potent deterrent effect on potentially violent offenders, for whom the threat of imprisonment is not a sufficient restraint. However, this argument is usually disregarded as there is no research to suggest this is true, and nothing to demonstrate that life or long-term imprisonment is less of a deterrent. In response to this, John McAdams at Marquette University states that even if no one is deterred by the death penalty, “… we have killed a bunch of murderers”, and this is still a positive deed.

Singapore is a stark defender of the death penalty; at times they are reported to have had the highest per capita execution rate. Not only can you be sentenced to death for murder in Singapore, but also for drug related crimes and manslaughter. But is this working as an effective deterrent? The simplistic answer to this question appears to be yes. The crime rate in Singapore is extremely low compared to other developed nations and the world in general, and according to the Economist Intelligence Unit 2019 Safe Cities Index, Singapore was ranked as the safest city in the world. But to what extent can the death penalty be given the credit, and would the results be the same in such a vastly different country such the UK, which has a much larger population and significant cultural differences?

There is also a practical argument for capital punishment. According to statistics, in 2019/20, the average cost of a prison place in England and Wales was 44.6 thousand GBP a year. Since 2015/2016, the annual cost of one prison place has increased by around 9.45 thousand British pounds. Therefore, a whole-life sentence, such as in Couzens’ case, could cost the taxpayer and government a huge amount of money. If you are sentencing them to life without parole, you are arguably already taking away their right to life, so why not save some money while doing it? 

The greatest evidence against this ‘saving money’ argument is found by looking at America. In the USA, studies show that states such as Indiana, Kansas, California, Tenessee, Texas, and more, are spending millions on death sentences. For example, in Texas, the Dallas Morning News reported that each death penalty case costs taxpayers about $2.3 million, roughly three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years. Another example is the Performance Audit Report in Kansas, which found that the cost of a capital punishment case was a median of $1.26 million, whereas non-death penalty cases were found to cost a median of $740,000. All this suggests that if capital punishment was to be implemented in the UK, the taxpayer would actually feel the burden a whole lot more. But in the case of such cruel crimes like Couzens’, is it about the money? Could the taxpayer look past the costs when faced with such intense emotions after reading about such an upsetting case?

Public support for capital punishment in the UK is reported to hover around the 50% mark, and this percentage has a tendency to increase when when a notably heinous crime captures the nation, such as Sarah Everard’s case. However, while the debate around the death penalty will continue to be brought up in the face of particularly emotional and shocking cases, it is ultimately unlikely that we will ever see its reintroduction in the UK. There will always be strong opposition, and each argument in favour of the death penalty will face serious scrutiny. The nail in the coffin for many people is that the death penalty leaves no room for error. In the US, cases have been reopened once a person has already been put to death after new information has appeared, only to prove they were not the perpetrator. Furthermore, once someone is sentenced to death in the US it is notoriously difficult for them to appeal, meaning the likelihood of killing someone for no reason is arguably too high. We should be wary of making huge decisions about our justice system off the back of one case, and many people argue that we cannot reintroduce a system that pursues retributive penalties which have little evidence of preventative results. Therefore, the reintroduction of the death penalty would most likely face huge uproar and protesting.

Desmond Tutu’s opinion on the subject is probably the strongest felt throughout society in the UK today, he stated that “to take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice”; and does revenge bring sufficient closure to the victim’s family? Furthermore, one might question whether the whole-life sentence is more fitting to a horrific crime such as Sarah Everard’s case. A whole-life sentence means you have no chance of parole, and you will live out your years in prison (which for Wayne Couzens, could be another forty years) in the knowledge that you will die there. That is arguably worse than dying quickly – a whole-life sentence is effectively a death penalty, just a slow, lingering one.

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