Last week I criticised Peter Hitchens on Twitter over his support forthe death penalty and his assertion that its re-introduction herewould save lives. I should say that I did so rather rudely and I haveapologised to him for that. But I still disagree with him and here,briefly, is my rationale and why I believe that there is anotherpotentially much more effective, but almost as controversial, way ofreducing violent crime.First of all I observe that the debate on the death penalty is often nota debate at all. Individuals on either side take a firm stance and insistthat either executions deter or they don’t. In fact the research isinconclusive. This was emphasised just this week by the NationalAcademy of Sciences in the USA, which advised policymakers to becautious of absolute claims – one way or another - about thedeterrent effect of execution. The Academy concluded that:Studies have reached widely varying, even contradictory, conclusions.Some studies conclude that executions save large numbers of lives;others conclude that executions actually increase homicides; and stillothers conclude that executions have no effect on homicide rate.So, if the evidence is inconclusive, why am I in the anti-death-penaltycamp? First of all some background: For twenty-three years I workedin and around prisons and I ran the Prison Service for seven years.So, Yes, I am the same Martin Narey who, as Mr Hitchens put it lastweek, “used to be a prominent bureaucrat in Britain’s pointlesswarehousing organisation, known as the prison system?” (there’sactually some validity in that description of the prison system, butthat’s another debate).My experience of offenders is that punishment offers very little bythe way of deterrence. I made no apology for treating those weincarcerate with decency and dignity. It’s about imposing our values,not succumbing to the values of those who harm and steal fromothers. But there would have been an interesting moral challenge tomy determination to make prisons more decent places if the variousexperiments in the last thirty years with austere and physicallydemanding regimes had deterred offending. But they didn’t. And thereason they didn’t, in my view, is the same reason that the deterrentof capital punishment wouldn’t work here. And that is that offenders,overwhelmingly, don’t believe they will get caught. That is what weneed to change.
It can be done. The simplest example of that is the way that the habitof drinking and driving, something which countless law abidingindividuals indulged in, was changed by the spectre of thebreathalyser. It was never the case that there was a significantchance of being stopped on the way home from the pub. Butindividuals believed there was and this particular type of criminalitydiminished remarkably.But in general, offenders, whether those who indulge in theft or thosewho are violent don’t believe they will be caught. And because of thatthey don’t contemplate the likely consequences of being caught. Andthat applies, in my experience, even when the criminality has been soinept that, to you and me, apprehension would always have appearedinevitable.Most crime is committed by young men. Not always, but veryfrequently, by young men who have a marked inability to foresee theconsequences of their actions. Some more serious offending,including sex offending, is less spontaneous, more carefully plannedand with greater effort dedicated to evading justice. But almost alloffenders don’t believe they are likely to be caught.We can begin to change that. We can convince current offenders andfuture offenders that they are more likely to be caught and we can, inparticular, deter violent crime, including murder by requiring alladults, or at least all males, to allow their DNA to be recorded. I knowthat position holds very little support and that it is seen by many as awholly unjustified attack on civil liberties. I believe it would be aprice worth paying if the person who this week abductedfive-year-old April Jones had understood that it was inevitable that hisabduction would be revealed by the presence of his DNA.One final point on the death penalty issue: Quite properly we have avery high standard of proof in the criminal courts. As judgessometimes explain to juries, believing someone probably committeda crime is not sufficient for a finding of guilt. If a finding of guilt formurder were to lead to a death penalty – and assuming of course thatthe sentence was not subsequently commuted – I believe that juriestoo nervous of the consequence of their decision would acquit moremurderers.