Justice by Murder: Is the Reintroduction of the Death Penalty the Solution to the UK’s Broken Prison System, or Are There Better Alternatives?

By Alex Smith | 21st May 2023

Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party and Member of Parliament for Ashfield, Lee Anderson sparked a debate earlier this year, suggesting that “no one has ever committed a crime after being executed” and backing the UK reinstating the death penalty.  Whilst the government quickly distanced itself from Mr Anderson’s views, his comments briefly reignited the debate, with some seeing it as a solution to the current problems in the UK justice system.

The UK justice system is in serious need of reform, with reported crime rates at a 20 year high but only 5.6% of those actually leading to criminal charges. Whilst reoffending rates have been steadily declining over the past decade, the current reoffending rate still stands at 29%. The prison system has regularly been criticized for its failure to effectively rehabilitate offenders. Limited access to education, job training, and employment opportunities hinders prisoners’ ability to reintegrate into society upon release. Inadequate mental health support and a lack of targeted programs to address addiction issues further contribute to the cycle of reoffending. These failures have resulted in many prisons becoming overcrowded, with living conditions compromised, increased prisoner tensions leading to violence, inadequate staffing levels, and an ever-increasing court sentencing backlog with 28% of cases yet to be completed having been in the system for more than a year. It is therefore safe to say the system in its current form is failing, with serious reform needed. 

The death penalty hasn’t been used in the UK since the final executions of Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen on 13th August 1964, although it wasn’t until the Human Rights Act in 1998 when it was banned in all circumstances. With the increasing issue of knife crime in UK cities, some see the death penalty as the best deterrent against the most serious crimes such as murder and serious child sexual offences. A life for a life is seen by many proponents of the law as a just punishment. A study by YouGov found that although most of the population do not generally support the return of capital punishment, they are more likely than not to support its return for child murderers, murders committed as part of a terrorist act and cases of multiple murder.

Although, Mr Anderson’s views suggest the return of capital punishment would solve some of the issues facing the criminal justice system, his claim that it has a “100% success rate” can be proved factually incorrect. Capital punishment is irreversible and there are many examples of potentially innocent people being wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit. The case of Derek Bentley, a mentally impaired 19 year old, who was controversially sentenced to death when his friend, Chris Craig, shot a police officer during an attempted burglary, made many in the UK question the moral use of capital punishment, as the gun was neither owned or fired by Bentley, and due to being under age, Craig was not able to be hanged. Four decades after Bentley was hanged, the decision was found to be unjust, and Bentley’s name was pardoned.

Furthermore, doubts can be cast over whether capital punishment does in fact save money for the justice system, or whether in many cases it can be more costly, with longer trial and appeal processes, higher legal costs (as many who face the penalty in the US cannot afford their own attorney), and a need for increased prisoner security. Evidence also suggests that the death penalty has no effect on reducing serious crime rates with 2004 data from the USA showing the average murder rate for states that used the death penalty was 5.71 per 100,000, against 4.02 per 100,000 in states that did not have the penalty. Even if the death penalty was reinstated in the UK, the same issues in the prison system would persist, with new issues attributed to capital punishment laws also providing more problems than solutions.

Instead of reintroducing outdated laws and punishments, the UK should take inspiration from the justice systems of countries such as Norway, Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands to find solutions for the issues within its prison and justice systems. From Norway, the UK can adopt a rehabilitation-focused approach, investing in education, vocational training, and employment opportunities within prisons to support prisoners’ reintegration into society. Drawing from Finland’s restorative justice model, the UK can promote dialogue between victims and offenders, while addressing the root causes of criminal behaviour through comprehensive support systems and community-based interventions rather than incarceration. To improve living conditions and reduce overcrowding, the UK should look at implementing “open prisons” as seen in Germany, which create a more relaxed and rehabilitative environment for prisoners, with a focus on reintegration and preparing them for life after release. The Netherlands’ use of electronic monitoring, community-based sanctions, and diversion programs could be explored to reduce reliance on custodial sentences. By adapting successful elements from these systems, the UK can work towards a more effective, rehabilitative, and inclusive prison and justice system.

Implementing more tolerant drug policies in the UK (similar to the Netherlands) could also help address the broken justice system. By shifting the focus from criminalization of users to a public health issue, resources can be redirected towards prevention, treatment, and harm reduction programs. This approach reduces strain on the police and justice systems, alleviates prison overcrowding, and provides support for individuals struggling with addiction. 

Overall, the debate on whether the death penalty should be reinstated remains a moral issue with different people having their own opinions on whether it is a just form of punishment. However, on a policy front, capital punishment offers no benefits or solutions to fixing the current issues faced by the UK justice and prison systems. Instead, efforts should be focussed on reforming the current prison systems to improve prisoner rehabilitation, living conditions and education, allowing them to reintegrate into society easier and lower reoffending rates. Outside of prisons, more community and social support programs can help reduce the amount of people drawn into crime, easing the strain on the justice system.

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