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Local Rag Editorial 3

Crime And Punishment and The Populist Push

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I suppose that it was all reasonably predictable.

After trying to disguise the vastly inadequate sums of money that governments of all persuasions have spent on such basic social institutions such as the police over the last ten years, the emphasis in the 'Law and Order' debate was bound to swing from prevention to punishment.

Prevention after all, requires a commitment to a range of social spending. Welfare workers, adequate numbers of well resourced police officers; legal aid; the funding of rehabilitation and early intervention programs in Prisons and so on ...all of which means tax increases.

Threats of harsher punishment seem, albeit deceptively so, to be a cheaper alternative. They also have the added benefit of giving the public the completely misleading impression that administrations are actually doing something useful about the problem of crime.

It was therefore also rather predictable that in the course of the NSW election that a range of populist right wing groups would trot out that extremely rickety and degenerate hobby horse.... the reintroduction of Capital Punishment. It seems that there is a significant and growing number of people who seem to be intent on slavishly following the U.S. in it's failed and discredited policy on this matter; so I thought that it might be beneficial this quarter to stop, and consider some of the issues that actually surround the Death Penalty,

I am sure that all contributors on the subject, for and against, desire the same thing...a safer, more just, society with reduced levels of crime and violence. There is always, however, substantial disagreement as to whether the re-institution of Capital Punishment would help or hinder such aspirations. And those who hold an opinion are almost quasi religious about it Small matters like the facts and national experience do very little to change their minds. So what exactly are the issues?

Firstly, deterrence.

Does Capital Punishment reduce the rates of violent crime? That is, will Australia be more safe for us and our children if the Death Penalty is re-introduced?

The answer seems to be a resounding negative. Experience in the USA is not always directly transferable to Australia, but social conditions in the United States are probably closer to our own than any other society currently invoking the Death Penalty. Since the US re-introduced Capital Punishment in 1979, in about one third of it's states, the experience there has been a sobering one.

FACT: In none of those states where the Death Penalty was reinstituted has there been any reduction in the number of, or the brutality of, crimes committed. In some cases, notably Texas and Florida, there has been, in fact, an significant increase in the murder rate. (The United States of America. The Death Penalty. Amnesty International Publications.)

Life imprisonment at least creates a living deterrent. Executed people particularly in countries where executions are commonplace events, are most often buried and forgotten.

There may even be some evidence now to suggest that state executions, well reported and increasingly videoed, further brutalise populations and can actually contribute to the crime rate.

Secondly, justice.

Is the Death Penalty likely to result in a more just response to violent crime?

Again, the answer is probably not.

One of the great fears among the legal fraternity in Australia who are, I might add, overwhelmingly against it's re-introduction, is the prospect that it will actually mitigate against the conviction of guilty people. Without reflecting upon the guilt or innocence of the former Premier, one need only look back to the Bjelke-Peterson trial in Queensland to realise that, in Australia, even one intransigent member of a jury (which must be unanimous in a decision to convict) is enough to 'hang' a jury and thus cause a retrial.

Historically, one of the major reasons that large scale transportation to Australia was instituted in 1788 was the increasing inability of British Crown prosecutors to obtain convictions in cases where the jury was aware that a guilty verdict would result in the death of the convicted person. Given that a significant number, possibly a large majority, of Australians are implacably opposed to the Death Penalty in all cases on moral grounds, it's re-institution would without question lead to a significant increase in the number of acquittals or retrials of guilty people who may otherwise have been convicted.

An attempted solution to this very real problem, as practiced in the United States, is the legislated exclusion of all people opposed to the Death Penalty from jury service in Capital cases. The outcomes for justice, however, have been nothing less than appalling, since any distortion in the representativeness of juries also results in a corresponding distortion in the validity of their eventual decisions.

'Death penalty approving' juries, for example, have also proved to be 'guilt prone' juries.

Thirdly: Inconsistent and Arbitrary Application

Even more disturbing, these same juries are significantly more likely to convict defendants with a non-white, homosexual or other minority background. At the sentencing phase of a Capital case in the USA, in which the jury actually decides whether or not to execute the convict, the distortions become even more apparent.

FACT: Although recent statistics now do show that the majority of those executed in the USA since the reintroduction of Capital Punishment have been white; (approx. 1800 whites as against approx.1300 blacks. These are CJP Figures and are changing weekly) but to be in proportion to the general population, where Afro-Americans represent only 13% of all US citizens, the black component should also only be 13% of the total number executed. For the DP process to be systemically non-racist that number should be no more than 400.

The fact that it is about three times higher than this shows that preexisting conditions operate within American society which lead blacks disproportionately into violent behaviour........unless of course one believes, illogically and racistly, that Afro-Americans are 'naturally' more likely commit murder. The logical extrapolation of the statistics quoted is that, executions are racially biased because they are the end result of prevailing social conditions in the US which make it far more likely that a black will offend; and will be executed. Where the initial sample is racially biased then all else that flows from such statistics will be similarly biased. Blacks are therefore still over represented by a factor of about three. Not only that, the USA, to it's eternal disgrace, also remains one of the only countries on the face of the earth to condemn children and the mentally ill to death. In carrying out these executions, often years later, it is arbitrary,sexist and racist in the manner in which it dispenses death and all available statistics show this to be incontrovertible.

There is no justice in a system that is arbitrary in the application of it's penalties and indeed in all countries that retain the Death Penalty this is the case. If the US experience were to be reflected in Australia, the implications for aboriginal Australians, in particular, would be horrendous.

Fourthly, the question of innocence.

An often quoted, but none the less, compelling issue.

FACT; At least 349 innocent people have been wrongly convicted of a Capital crime in the United States this century, some 50 of them since 1970. Of these, 23 were actually executed. In 32 of these cases it was later found no murder had been committed; the purported murder victim being found alive. (The United States of America The Death Penalty Amnesty International Publications 1987,1990.)

As recently as 1992 the electrocution of Roger Coleman proceeded amidst public furore in a similar political environment to that which surrounded The Ryan Case in Australia. New evidence known at the time of execution but which was not admitted at his trial has now cast grave doubts on his guilt. The Tim Anderson Case, The Lindy Chamberlain Case and many other notorious cases of wrongful convictions for murder in this country should be sobering reminders of how often this does happen. Under a system of Capital Punishment these wrongs can never be redressed.

Fifthly, cost.

This a far less worthy item of consideration when dealing with executions but in an age dominated by economic 'rationalism', I suppose it must be addressed. Is it cheaper to execute convicted criminals than pay to guard and accommodate them for the terms of their sentences; particularly if those sentences are of the 'never to be released' variety?

The answer is also, surprisingly, no.

Since the Death Penalty is irreversible, it places an enormous burden on the public legal system to ensure that every possible avenue of appeal has been exhausted; to prevent innocent people being executed.

Under numerous international covenants to which Australia is signatory, legal representation must be made available in serious criminal cases; where the defendant is unable to provide their own. Since, statistically, most convicted murderers come from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, these bills must be paid for out of the public purse.

Where death is the sentence, almost every case will be appealed interminably. Stays of execution, campaigns for commutation and petitions for clemency cost the community dearly and the cost of the physical execution itself in the current American experience is unbelievably high.

Sixthly; The Question Of Rehabilitation

One thing that outrages me is that in the recent times the term 'Do Gooder' has become a pejorative. It outrages me because 'good' to a greater or lesser degree is precisely what all members of a great society should be trying to do. In the face of the tragedy of an event like the Anita Cobby Murder we, as a nation, are called to respond. And our response as civilised people should be based on the supposition that since we cannot undo an act of evil, then our response to it must be calculated to produce the greatest subsequent good.

So when we compare the outcomes of the two punitive approaches (i.e. death vs imprisonment) we should be judging them by their capacity to achieve the greatest good.

If the purpose of execution is to prevent re-offence then effective life imprisonment satisfies this options without the process of ritualised murder. The imprisonment option also offers the possibility, however remote, of rehabilitation. The fifteen years of time allowed Karla Faye Tucker are widely thought to have effected a spiritual and social renaissance in her life. Execution, particularly swift and mandatory execution, offers no such possibility. In this area imprisonment may provide the possibility of the greater good.

If the outcome sought is a reduction of violence in society then execution fails miserably. especially when you take into account the societal damage inflicted psychically on us all as we vicariously participate through media coverage in the murderous ritual of execution. The 'parties' which are now common at prisons in the US where executions are scheduled are revolting evidence of that.

All this is quite apart from the moral and ethical issues that plague the question of state executions. So what does that leave as the argument for Capital Punishment? In the United States most District Attorneys have just about given up even trying to defend the practice on any other grounds except one. It's popular. And it's gaining political ground in Australia.


Certainly it is, firstly, because many people are confused, frightened and outraged by such events as those that led to the conviction of The Murphys and Andrew Bryant. They are also largely unaware of the evidence outlined above and so many mistakenly believe that the re-introduction of the Death Penalty will have some benefit.

The second factor, however, is far more disturbing.

I personally believe that the current calls for the reintroduction of executions, reflect a growing adherence in our society to the notion of retribution, or more accurately, revenge; a vicarious 'payback' in which we all get to participate. The ultimate thrill, perhaps, for a society whose taste for this sort of thing has been thoroughly whetted by the already vast excesses of a violent media culture; and the desire for which is being cynically pandered to by prospective politicians eager to build a career upon it.

One would have thought that revenge, as an instrument of public policy, had proved such a frightening and dismal failure in countries like Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and God knows how many other decimated locations on our poor tortured planet, that it would have no credibility whatsoever in Australian political life; and no place at all in a society that espouses, even nominally, Christian or Humanitarian ideals.


Pat Drummond

Further Reading

Link to New Abolitionist

The Case against The Death Penalty In The USA

Disagree? Agree? Got something to say? Do it here!


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Re: Editorial response


Thu, 06 May 1999 12:52:30 +1000


Geoff Mooney <canyon@sapphirecoast.net.au>




1 , 2




I enjoyed your latest editorial Crime and Punishment and The Populist Push. I have long been appalled by the call for the return of capital punishment and have been aware of the majority of the facts you have used to support your argument against this. I noticed, though, that you avoided a philosophical, moralistic or religious aspect and I understand your reluctance to be perceived as preaching a doctrine. ( Not exactly Geoff, There is a link you might have missed half way down the page that leads to a seperate page that dicusses the Christian perspective-Ed.) But it seems to me that any thinking caring person also understands the implications of legal murder. It is basically barbarism and demeans our race. It also propagates the belief that the emotions hate and anger and the notion of retribution (i.e. revenge as you so rightly highlighted) are credible and somehow rewarding.


But I would also like to discuss crime prevention options. There are several aspects to this that I think need to be individually addressed. I list three of these below:


1. The Economics:


Your point about the inadequate sums of money deployed by governments in supporting crime prevention infrastructure is both important and troubling. Governments these days seem to spend the majority of their efforts endeavouring to find ways of managing a decreasing revenue base. Because their focus is so short term, solutions seem to revolve around slashing expenditures while options for increasing revenues seems to either revolve around selling off our most viable and profitable public assets or increasing the tax burden upon those who can least afford it. This is increasingly done in surreptitious ways, including the promotion and revenue dependence upon gambling. (Of course the privatisation of public assets is in itself a major shift or redistribution of wealth in itself).

Not unreasonably, many economists question the need to run a balanced budget let alone one in surplus (particularly at a national level) when money is needed for investment in community infrastructure. The cost of cleaning up AFTER crime is many times that of prevention and the ratio can only increase as long as so little is invested at the prevention level. Surely the long-term economic answer is to increase prevention spending and allow the savings and social benefits to filter through over a longer period of time.


2. What Sort of Society:


I once proposed to you that political leadership be about delivering outcomes that represented idealistic rather than pragmatic goals. I still believe that political policy and determination should be in response to a very simple question, what sort of society do we want? . You contended that it would be impossible to get a majority of citizens to agree on the answer. But I am certain that a vast majority would support a society which boasted egalitarianism, social justice, a low crime rate, tolerance, full employment and opportunity for all. Sounds simple enough doesn't it? So why then are we being led in what would seem an opposite direction? Governments of all persuasions allow (nay, foster) the widening of the gap between the haves and the have-nots . Globalisation has meant an increasing reliance by governments on foreign investment and that is predicated upon policies that are skewed towards big business rather than the majority of the community. The market system has meant that business has gained a substantial hold over the machinations of western government policy to the point where it manipulates governments instead of being controlled by them.

How can governments not be held more responsible for the state of our SOCIETY rather than just our economy? After all, an economy exists within a society and not the other way around. All available evidence suggests strongly that our crime rate will only deteriorate as the rich get richer and the poor get the picture. Drug dependency will increase alarmingly (as is already occurring) and crimes will become more desperate and horrifying as those that have been marginalised realise that they have nothing to lose by striking back (the Kelly Option).


3. Leadership, respect and prospect

Leadership carries with it the responsibility of setting examples and forging appropriate solutions to complex problems. It is about earning respect. And it is about offering achievable prospect to those whom are led. Leadership sets the standards, draws the lines and lays out the rules by which the team plays. It should never promote self-centredness, selfishness, greed and hedonism. Leaders should be seen as compassionate, empathetic givers, not takers. They should be the way.

So where are these leaders today? They certainly don't sit in parliament. No, the me and only me generation has failed to bring the cream to the surface as far as political leadership goes, quite the opposite in fact. So is it our community leaders? No, I'm afraid the notion of community is dying all the time as the promotion of competitiveness and individualism has become the norm. So is it our religious leaders? No, again I'm afraid that fewer and fewer people see religion as the answer and participation rates have decreased significantly over the last decade or so.

Then our last hope must be that leadership comes from within the family home, from our parents. Well, I believe it is the final bastion of leadership and the place from which social and political change will eventually and necessarily emanate. But not only has the family unit been devastated with almost half of the countries children being brought up by one parent, where love and commitment and compromise are daily learned in so many ways, but that parent is under enormous financial and emotional strain.

No longer is there security in employment, or even employment prospects for many. And for those who attain work, it is now often far removed from the field that they dreamed of entering. For dreams are frowned upon these days. And there is no longer contentment with a simple and ordinary existence, as consumerism increasingly indoctrinates us with the notion that enough is never enough.

So, without quality leadership, without respect for those who purport to lead us, and with deep apprehension about where we are going and our prospect of finding a fulfilling role once there, why should we expect there to not be and increasing crime rate. No one should be surprised that the young rebel, vent their anger and frustration, and resort to substance abuse to escape this uninviting reality when there seems to be a concerted attempt to justify their marginalisation by telling them that their lack of prospect is, in fact, a failing within themselves.


4. Education and Assistance


I have long contended that the biggest problem in our society today is quite simply lack of self-esteem . Look around you and try to imagine a world where people felt so much better about themselves, a world where the baggage from their childhood was minimised, where anger and hate and greed were pushed aside in favour of altruism and sustainable community values. We need to be able to see each other not as competition but as a part of ourselves. We need to understand the value of giving as opposed to taking, the value of inner peace and outward dignity.

Of course these things simply come back to my first two points. Firstly, having recognised the essential need to improve our self-esteem and those of the following generations, it then becomes the responsibility of all of us, including governments, to find ways of achieving this. It may mean offering more meaningful and enlightening educational curricula, which values the acquisition of life skills as much as those that simply pertain to employment. It may mean an immediate push to redress the widening wealth gap. It may mean a massive investment in both educational and personal support infrastructure where there is a focus on social science as opposed to political and economic science which simply facilitates a greater understanding of ourselves, our motivations and our fears.

But whatever it all takes, we need to change direction now. We need to let governments know that new measures are needed to build a stronger SOCIETY, and that these measures are of long-term benefit in both economic terms and in terms of reducing our crime rate. We simply need to make them understand that prevention is a far more preferable option than cure. And we need to let them know that if business doesn't approve of this new focus then they do so at their own peril.


Geoff Mooney

Tathra NSW

debbie meeuwsen <dozingdeb@bigpond.com>

Subject Thank You

This is the first time I have ever been prompted to reply to an editorial but I felt this time I just had too..

Your editorial on the death penalty was superb, and yes I admit to having held quite a few of the preconceived notions you addressed.. A newly enlightened convert.. thanks for taking the time to do your bit "for the greater good".

P.S. i started out tonight looking at country music pages.. and ended up here, ahh the education one gets without even trying


Subject: Re: The Anita Cobby Case

G'day Pat,

You and I have met through the music biz.

What a complex issue to tackle.

I can only comment on my experience as a long term friend of Garry and Grace (Peg) Lynch and my own reaction to the whole scenario that surrounded Anita's killing.

I accompanied the Lynch's to the hearings at Westmead, Glebe and finally most of the actual trial of the killers and had ample opportunity to study them at close quarters.

This being the case Pat, I would have no hesitation in putting my hand up to flick the switch, pull the lever, administer the gas, pull the trigger or use whatever means necessary to rid the world of that filth.

My position was reinforced by witnessing the devastation of Anita's family first hand and the knowledge of what her last moments were like.
The five killers were quite proud of the fact that they were man enough to ignore her tearful plea to be let go.

At the point that Michael Murphy found her plea for mercy an irritation he kicked and beat her semiconscious.
We all know what happened next.

While I respect your right to your views, one's perspective changes when it hits close to home (murder that is) and you are damn right when you say it is about payback.

I am certainly not going to apologise for feeling that way as I know what a good person Anita was.

Paul McGovern

To: newmillennium@bigpond.com

Hi Paul,

Your experience has real validity for yourself and there are many who would agree with you. As you can see from the extensive Ed. on the subject above, I don't.

But I know how you feel, mate. I had the 'experience' of coming into contact with the Murphys briefly when I played at Long Bay Goal, in protection section, about a decade ago.

It was fairly chilling, but it still doesn't negate or even address the main thrust of the argument which is that ultimately Capital punishment is unacceptable because it is -:

1. Arbitrary ( vastly greater numbers of minority groups are executed for the same crimes than majority groups in every country where it has been enacted)

2. It is is fallible; any number of innocent people have been executed wrongly where it has been enacted.... and where this has happened it is the exact equivalent of what the Murphys did to Anita. i.e. cold blooded ritual murder of an innocent human being who at the time was powerless to defend themselves; but with the added torture of informing them in advance of the exact date and time it would be done to them.

3. It is horrendously expensive and often mitigates against any conviction at all, where the jury know that the outcome of a murder conviction is death (see the notes on the recent American experience above)

4. Lastly, it is simply morally wrong. All acts are judged by whether the enact a greater good or harm. No executions ever bring back the victim. They merely exact revenge.... which is morally wrong in all cases. I understand the drive for revenge, but it is precisely the reason we have Law; rather than Vendetta to settle these horrible matters. It is why we do not allow revenge to be enacted for it's own sake by the relatives and friends of the victim. Payback, per se, is absolutely unacceptable among civilised people.

I should point out here that there are many examples of families who have had loved ones murdered who still vehemently oppose the Death Penalty because of the reasons outlined above; and because their Reason is not totally clouded by their emotional desire for Revenge. I would hope I would be able to emulate those people in such circumstances. They are truly heroes.

Quite recently, one such, the father of one of the victims of the Bali Bombings was both strident and articulate in his opposition of the execution of his son's murderers. He was the very model of enlightened and civilised behaviour, which did not deny grief.... but did not seek to foul it with the desire for animal revenge. So it is not, as you posting might suggest, just a matter of 'Wait till it happens to you...you'd change your mind"

Forgiveness, hard as it often may be, is, after all, the essence of Christian teaching and the most noble and effective path to human peace and serenity for those who pursue it. Revenge merely enacts a cycle of violence that never ceases and eventually cripples all those who hunger for it.

My sympathy, as always lies with the victims and their families; but to debase ourselves and our community by committing an equally immoral act is hardly a worthy commemoration of those we have loved.

It does not allow them peace. It only serves to feed the evil in ourselves.

All The Best



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