Death penalty ‘spectacular failure’ in crime fight

-civic forum hears call for abolition, justice system review

The death penalty as a deterrent has been a spectacular failure according to Dr. Arif Bulkan, who said yesterday that government needs to abolish it as well as examine social conditions in the country that give rise to many of the murders perpetrated.

The state of the criminal justice system has to be examined thoroughly, he said, noting that the issue of policing the criminal justice system is also relevant in any discussion on the subject of the death penalty because it points to efficacy. He noted his support for consultations on a moratorium of the death penalty, but advocated for research, saying that discussions often give rise to “the same kind of rhetoric.”

Bulkan, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill campus, said that research in the region, more specifically in Trinidad and Tobago, has shown that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime. What the evidence points to, according to him, is that people are more concerned about certainty than severity.

Dr. Arif Bulkan

Bulkan led a civil society discussion on the extrajudicial killings and the death penalty yesterday at a public forum organized by the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) to stimulate interest in three issues which Guyana will report on at the United Nations Human Rights Council, in the framework of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) next month. Guyana had deferred its response to the issues earlier this year at the UPR, citing the need for wider consultations on corporal punishment, abolishing the death penalty and decriminalizing same sex relationships between consenting adults. To date, there has been no public consultation on any of the issues.

The question of what consultation means came up during the discussions yesterday but the general consensus was that government had not consulted on the UPR process prior to heading to Geneva in May. SASOD’s consultations yesterday resulted in suggestions that civil society ought to lobby legislators to implement changes in the laws, particularly the new legislation which was recently tabled to allow non-capital punishment for various categories of convicted murderers. Bulkan called the new legislation which was drafted “an important first step” but he emphasized that the bill makes no provision for a total abolition of the death penalty. He noted that the UPR process specifically calls for total abolition. Still, he said the fact that judges would be empowered with discretion is important. According to him, a fundamental principle of any rational and humane justice system would be that punishment is neither excessive nor barbaric. Guyanese have constitutional rights with respect to inhumane and degrading treatment, he said, but he also pointed out that there is a saving clause attached to the provision.

Proportionality in punishment is critical, he also said, while noting that murder has difficulties because of the categories of murder. He called the mandatory death penalty “excessive and counter-productive,” reiterating that the new proposed legislation is a good step because murders would be classified.

According to Bulkan, the argument in favour of the death penalty as a deterrent is a “knee-jerk” reaction to crime and is often propagated without any empirical data to support it. In the absence of any study here on the impact of the death penalty in reducing murder or any related offence, Bulkan said he had no choice but to draw from the experiences of other countries where research was conducted. “…Governments like it, they like to fall back on it because it looks like you’re doing something if you hang people but in effect you are not achieving anything,” he stated. Bulkan added that the death penalty has in fact been a spectacular failure as a deterrent.

Referring to a study in Trinidad and Tobago, he said that between 1998 and 2002 a study looked at murders, committals and trials in the country.
He said only 2 out of 10 persons over a five year period were convicted of murder during that period and according to him, the trends show an increasing number of unsolved murders; decrease in the number of murders resulting in conviction; and an extremely low rate for conviction of gang and drug related crimes as compared to domestic killings.

Further, he argued that government needs to address how effective the penalties on the books have been in addition to thoroughly examining the system. He believes the administration can only see an impact on the crime rate if these suggestions are taken on board and implemented, in addition to government addressing the social conditions that give rise to crime.
Head of the President Secretariat Dr. Roger Luncheon recently said that there is no move towards a moratorium on the death penalty yet, but he announced that the administration is willing to make some concessions and hence the new legislation tabled in Parliament.

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