The history of criminal law in modern times is the story of gradual softening of the severity of old penal codes and the abolition of their barbarities. Capital punishment was a common penalty for many different offenses in the old days. And even in days not so old. In England, for example, only 120 years ago death by hanging was the legal punishment for no less than 160 offenses! Those days a man could be hanged for poaching, stealing a sheep, theft of goods worth five shillings, or picking man’s pocket! It was Sir Robert Peel who, as Home Secretary, revised the penal code in 1823. And gradually cut down the number of capital offenses to two only- murder and treason.
Capital punishment has been abolished in some countries, such as Italy and Holland. However, it is still legal in Belgium and France. It has not been enforced there for many years. People throw arguments for and against the abolition of the death penalty. Most of them are advanced.
Those against abolitions are in the main two. First, death is the logical penalty for inflicting death on another. According to the Mosaic principle, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Second, the abolition of capital punishment for murder will greatly increase the number of murderers. This makes the criminals fear the dreadful penalty.
In opposition to these arguments, the supporters of the movement for abolition say that the principle of “an eye for an eye” is not applied to other crimes; for instance, a thief is not punished by having his own goods stolen. As to the idea that the substitution of, say, imprisonment for life for murder instead of hanging, would increase the number of murders. They point to the fact that this has not been so in Italy or Holland. It may be added that similar arguments have been used against all reforms of the criminal law. But they proved to be fallacious. Indeed, over-severity has often increased crime by making criminals desperate. You can relate to the famous saying “You may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb”.
The main argument against capital punishment is that is irrevocable. Justice is not infallible, and terrible mistakes have been made in murder trails. Prisoners have been condemned to death and executed who were afterward, but too late, proved to be innocent. If life-imprisonment had been the penalty for murder, the victims of these terrible miscarriages of justice could, at any rate, have been released and compensated for wrongful conviction. But nothing can be done to rectify the error when the convicted man has been hanged.