There are few questions more puzzling than that of whether Taiwan should retain the death penalty. Puzzling because Taiwanese by and large display an extraordinary amount of cynicism about the nation's judicial processes. Few believe that the courts are free from the influence of either politics or money; many believe that trying to seek redress through the courts is a waste of time and that one's local gangster boss is a more effective arbiter of disputes. Given this huge degree of dismissive cynicism, it is surprising therefore that the death penalty is still so popular here. Hardly anybody believes that the judicial system is infallible, but the majority of Taiwanese, according to occasional surveys, are still ready to allow that system to use a penalty that is irreversible.
Elsewhere in today's newspaper, Peter Hodgkinson, prominent campaigner for the abolition to the death penalty, draws our attention to some information that is widely understood and some that should be better known.
For example, it is a matter of common knowledge that there is hardly any correlation between levels of violent crime and the retention or otherwise of the death penalty. Arguments about capital punishment's deterrent value are almost universally discredited.
But here in Taiwan the deterrent argument seems to carry less force than the idea that keeping a "lifer" is an unnecessary expense which execution curtails.
This chilling pragmatism should be seen against practice in the US -- almost the only Western democracy which retains the death penalty -- where, by the time the various appeals, which can last many years, have been exhausted, it costs far more to execute a criminal than it would to keep him in prison for life.
It would be interesting to compare similar figures for Taiwan. But remember these figures themselves would be meaningless without a comparison of the appeals processes in the US and Taiwan. Execution might well be a bargain in Taiwan because convicts simply don't get the number of chances to appeal that the US provides. That can hardly be anything for Taiwan to be proud of.
And of course the US system itself, with its huge appeals apparatus, is still notoriously patchy in delivering "justice." That the penalty is used disproportionately against the poor, blacks and the mentally retarded is a matter of record. Once again, statistics for Taiwan are lacking but we doubt they are superior to those of the US.
And of course there is one area in which Taiwan has been vastly inferior to the US, namely in that the death penalty has been used for political reasons in the bad old days of KMT dictatorship. One might think that this would have discredited the practice for eternity. Apparently not.
The government is tentatively suggesting getting rid of the death penalty in 2004. Until then, it is giving judges the right to decide themselves whether capital punishment should be applied. Hodgkinson says that if this is a transition method then it is good thing, although it leaves too much power in judges hands. We have to disagree, because what the Ministry of Justice's action appears to do is make it an arbitrary matter whether the death penalty is awarded or not. Some liberal judges will shun the penalty, conservative ones may impose it if they wish, this injects an arbitrariness into punishment that surely nobody can mistake for justice being served.