Overcrowded Prisons and the Death Sentence:

Entering 2001, the Canadian prison system is now home to 32 000 inmates. The cost of housing, feeding, and guarding these men and women has become astronomical. Increasingly discussed as a solution is the re-introduction of the death penalty in Canada. The argument for this is both conceptually and ethically flawed: a violation of the fundamental rights of the individual.

A democratic society must work for the general benefit and in accordance with the general will of the people. The extent of that power does not, however, include the deprivation of a person's basic rights. Regardless of the benefit to society in general, there are some sacrifices that a government cannot demand. As citizens of a free nation each of us has the indelible right to live, to speak our minds, and to exist freely within the confines of the law. Deprivation of these basic rights is tyranny.

In order to save money, there are those who would empower the government to revoke the most basic right of a human being: the right to live. Since 1976, when the death penalty was abolished, the number of inmates in prisons has grown. This continued growth may seem initially to be evidence of a failed system, yet closer examination reveals an interesting change in the nature of the inmate population.

Since 1976, the homicide rate in Canada has gradually descended downwards. While the actual incidence of homicide has fallen, the number of convictions has risen. This trend is generally attributed to juries' knowledge that their conviction will not decide whether another person will live or die. Thus the deterrent effect of the death penalty has been shown to have a greater impact upon juries than upon criminals. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police even states that "It is futile to base an argument for reinstatement (of the death penalty) on grounds of deterrence." A clear example of the failure of the death penalty in limiting prison populations can be seen in our southerly neighbor. With some of the world's most enthusiastic capital punishment programs, the United States has 5% of the world's population but 25% of its prisoners. Two million Americans are presently incarcerated, most of them for non-violent or drug-related offenses.

Given the strong nature of the moral and statistical evidence presented against capital punishment, it is surprising to find that a majority of Canadians, when polled, support the system. This indicates, above all else, dissatisfaction with the current functioning of the justice system. The bloated costs and populations of prisons are disheartening. This leads to calls for swift decisive action. Despite its potential appeal as an easy, short-term solution the death penalty lacks the effectiveness to curb the trend towards greater incarceration. What are needed are long-term solutions and effective reforms within the justice and prison systems.

Rather than use fear of execution to punish those who sway from the social contract, prisons ought to demonstrate the value of following it. The utmost importance should be placed upon preventing those who are released from prison from returning. Also vitally important is the decrease of the total prison population. This can best be accomplished by re-thinking the system of punishment as it is currently established. Prisons should be reserved for those individuals who pose a tangible danger to society, not to those simply in need of assistance and rehabilitation.

Thus, by reducing the use of prison sentences only to violent and dangerous individuals and by undertaking to reform the perpetrators or non-violent crimes, the relatively modest problems of the Canadian prison system can be resolved, without the need to resort to brutal and inhuman practices.

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