Public opinion is a factor selectively ignored or drawn upon by policymakers presenting their case, and the death penalty is no exception. In eight years in office, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) failed to carry out one of its professed goals: to abolish capital punishment. As it left office with the death penalty intact, the administration said its hands were tied because a majority of the public believed the death penalty to be an effective deterrent to violent crime.
The administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) looks set to follow suit. The public can expect the Cabinet to cite opinion polls when it suits the administration and to turn a deaf ear on issues that do not serve its interests. When it comes to the death penalty, however, the new administration is already echoing the DPP.
Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng (王清峰) lost no time after the inauguration in promising to consider abolishing the death penalty. In the same breath, however, she warned that she had no clue how to go about achieving this goal, as it would run counter to public opinion. Almost 80 percent of the public supports capital punishment, Wang said, a figure also cited by the DPP.
Yet neither the DPP nor the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has shown much interest in propagating the fact that around 50 countries have abolished capital punishment over the past two decades — reasons that could shift public opinion. Today almost 140 countries have ceased to employ the death penalty, leaving Taiwan among a shrinking minority.
Studies have found no evidence that the threat of execution prevents violent crimes such as murder, nor have they found that these crimes multiply when the death penalty is removed. Capital punishment can therefore only serve two purposes: to assure the public that this “effective” deterrent exists (although it is not effective) and to fill a need for retribution proportional to the crime committed.
But modern justice systems have long since abandoned the “eye for an eye” philosophy as inadequate, inappropriate and inhumane. Thus, a rapist is not sentenced to rape. Furthermore, as the death penalty is irreversible, it should not be handed down by an imperfect judiciary. And with doubt-riddled trials like the Hsichih Trio’s, claiming the courts are infallible would be laughable.
The government must therefore make it clear to the public: Even one innocent person executed is far too high a price for what essentially boils down to revenge.
Taiwan also enforces the death penalty for nonviolent crimes such as selling drugs, which can only be described as draconian.
Under the DPP, the use of capital punishment decreased considerably. Although 29 people await execution, Taiwan has not carried out any executions since 2006 — nor does the public seem disturbed by that development. By Wang’s own admission, support for the death penalty falls to 40 percent if the public is assured of complementary measures, such as regulations on parole for violent criminals.
It would seem, then, not so daunting a task after all to present an alternative to the death penalty that both the public and government find fair. It is time for Taiwan’s leaders to stop serving up excuses and set the ball in motion.