Monday, July 16, 2012


I've been very scared lately by a whole host of loud voices demanding the death penalty for snatch thieves. As far as public demands go, this is probably one of the most bone-headed and barbaric ones to come our way in recent years.

Many people are incensed by continued stories of people dying due to bad falls after snatch thefts, but I'd like to respectfully point out that snatch thieves are not hardened killers. None of them sets out with the intention to kill anyone during a theft, and intent is important in criminal cases; to want to hang people who 'technically' killed someone sets us on a whole slippery slope of serious events. We are screaming overloud at what is actually a very small (but attention grabbing) part of the snatch theft picture. 

Snatch theft is an issue guaranteed to ignite passions and inflame emotions, neither of which are good guides to effective law-making.
In any case, we don't hang accidental murderers. We call that manslaughter. A poor kid who snatched a bag to feed himself isn't a vicious murderer who regards the death as a bonus point. Logic suggests that it's an extra burden for him to live with.

The death penalty, I'm sure we all realize, is largely useless as a deterrent to anything. Malaysia hasn't experimented much with its' death penalty, but many countries who have abolished capital punishment report no increase in crime following its abolition. Criminologists, by an 88.2% majority, do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent, as reviews of pro-deterrent studies reveal that they 'fall apart under close scrutiny' (Jeffrey Fagan, director of the Centre of  Crime, Community and Law at Columbia Law School). 

Statistics suggest the death penalty isn't a deterrent. Another statistical analysis here, by John Donnohue and Justin Wolfers, shows estimates of lives saved by the death penalty are fundamentally flawed.

In any case, the death penalty is barbaric. We as a society do our moral standing no credit when we stoop to the levels of asking for revenge. Of the vast range of punishments in the penal system, the death penalty, due to its terminal nature, is the only one that doesn't seek to reform the prisoner or put him to service, so all it serves is a primal desire to see someone die for ending another life, since we know it isn't an effective crime prevention measure. 

We as Malaysians pride ourselves on our hospitality, kindness and acceptance. How the Chinese, Malays and Indians treat each other is only part of that story. An arguably more important part is how we treat the migrant worker, the homosexual, the drug addict, the criminal. It is my belief that as long as we cannot find it in our hearts to be the better person than a killer, we have no right to call ourselves a civil society. 

Need I say more?
Part of the reason we gravitate towards such tools as the death penalty is that it's a simple, blunt force tool that appeals to our baser natures. In fact, truly solving street crimes like snatch thefts requires distinctly unglamorous tools, like more inclusive economic growth, an elevation of vocational education and reform of local policing measures. Just like everyone will rally around a catchy, Kony 2012 style campaign, but not a long term fix to the underlying problem of democracy and structural poverty in Africa. 

For that, to me, is the real problem. Our education system is too broken to be truly counted on as a way out of hardcore poverty anymore, and quality skills training doesn't nearly reach as many youths as it should. It might also be an idea to devolve more powers to local councils and local police units. They, after all, can better understand the community and respond more effectively to local crime and socioeconomic concerns.

I'll not pretend snatch thefts- and crime in general- isn't a serious problem in our society. The question is, are we so keen to throw away the last remaining vestiges of civility in our nation in order to 'save' it?

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