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have six years of stephen harper made us stupid?

let me be clear: i've been opposed to the death penalty basically since i found out there was a death penalty. there are lots of reasons for this, although i admit i'm generally one who's persuaded by facts far more than emotional arguments.

i was somewhat disturbed to find out that this actually puts me in a significant minority among my own countrymen, according to a recent poll. i mean, i'm used to holding positions that don't align with the majority, but the answers in this poll seem so bereft of logical thought that it makes me wonder if people in canada are getting their opinions from anything other than their guts or the voices in their heads.

of course, the poll doesn't really get into a lot of detail about why people think this way, but the few reasons it does mention lead me to believe that not much in the way of fact-checking is going on.

for instance, 58% of respondents in british columbia, alberta and ontario [three of the four most populous provinces in canada and a significant majority of the country's population] believed that the death penalty would serve as a deterrent. which is a popular argument and fairly persuasive, if you ignore the fact that it's complete baloney.

a 2009 study [link goes to pdf conducted by the sociology department at the university of colorado-boulder and published in the journal of criminal law and criminology indicated that empirical research emphatically supported the claim that the death penalty has no deterrent effect greater than that provided by long prison sentences.

of course, you don't have to take the word of a bunch of stuffy criminologists studying data all day. you could just look at figures for the top ten countries with the highest crime rates versus the ten with the lowest crime rates. both lists contain four countries that have the death penalty and six that don't. if the death penalty did serve as a deterrent, one would expect that the countries with the lowest crime rates would almost all have the death penalty as part of their punitive system. but statistically, there is no correlation whatsoever between the death penalty and crime rates.


one could point out, of course, that there are different cultures and cultural norms at work in different areas of the world, which makes a direct comparison difficult. fair enough. you could choose to look at countries that do compare fairly easily- like english-speaking, comparatively affluent capitalist democracies: australia, new zealand, canada, the united states, england/ wales and scotland. one of those countries has a homicide rate more than double any of the others. the only one that has the death penalty.

breaking it down further, states that have the death penalty have consistently had higher murder rates than those that do not. the american south, which executes more people than any other region [even if you exclude texas and virginia, #1 and #2 respectively in the death-row dance-a-thon] also has the highest crime rate.

it comes as no surprise that canadians who voted for stephen harper and his conservatives in the last election overwhelmingly [88%] favour a return of the death penalty. [it might come as a surprise that the only other party whose supporters who favoured the death penalty outnumbered those who didn't was the ndp.] stephen harper has made a great show of his supposed commitment to being tough on crime and has done his best to whip up public fear and support for his agenda, which includes doubling the budget of the department of corrections and using billions of taxpayer dollars [funded partly through cuts to less useful departments like health and education] at a time when crime rates are at their lowest in forty years.

of course, the problem with harper's "tough on crime" plan is that it's akin to responding to infectious diseases by building state of the art morgues rather than hospitals. once a crime has happened, particularly a violent crime, a great deal of damage has already been done. if harper really wanted to be tough on crime, he'd introduce legislation to fight poverty, since the statistics quoted above actually show a correlation between high crime and poverty. or he'd take the lead on issues like gun control, since countries like great britain, australia and, yes, canada, have all seen a decrease in violent crime corresponding to greater restrictions on gun ownership [and especially handgun ownership, favoured in urban areas, where violent crime rates are generally higher]. instead, harper is slashing services to the poor to pay for the prisons [that will eventually be used to house them, one assumes] and repealing laws on gun control. way to go.

and yes, stephen harper personally favours the death penalty, although he says he has no plans to resurrect the debate over it. at least not right now.

faced with polls like the one conducted last week, he could well assume that reopening the death penalty debate would actually play well with his apparently ill-informed base. if the population has chosen to pull the wool over its own eyes, there's no reason he shouldn't take advantage of our collective ignorance. there was a time when i used to like to tease our american cousins about their infamously open relationship with facts and rationality, but i have to admit that all indications are that we aren't exactly showing ourselves to be leaders in that regard.

we all have opinions and we're all entitled to our opinions. but when you're talking life and death, we should be a lot more interested in checking our facts.


Aaron Fenwick said…
Well having lived under a decade of conservative rule in Australia.. Yes it probably has. Dumbing down the discourse is goal #1 for any conservative candidate worth his flagpin.

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