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The causes of violent crime and alternatives to capital punishment

By Aaron, our design and layout editor

In this article, Aaron attempts to understand the human motivation to kill, and alternatives to capital punishment.

News stories about horrendous murders, rapes, child abuse, torture, and more can evoke deep emotional outrage, leading to a desire to inflict harm on offenders as a form of retribution. They must be punished; they must pay for the pain they have caused. The majority of states, about 70 per cent of them and predominantly in the West, have abolished capital punishment. But in those states where this form of punishment still operates we may ask what does the punishment achieve? It's obviously not for the purposes of reform or rehabilitation, although it may help to deter others. Is it, then, mainly about retribution and satisfying a bloodlust in ourselves and the state, attempting to make amends for the trauma suffered by the victim? Is this not a primitive way to think about punishment?

We should, I think, also be asking questions about the causes of violent crime. Some scientific studies suggest that the amygdala plays a role in criminal behaviour. In 2014, the American Psychological Association reported that:

'The amygdala – a part of the brain involved in fear, aggression and social interactions – is implicated in crime. Among the research that points to this link is a neuroimaging study led by Dustin Pardini, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh. His team found that 26-year-old men with lower amygdala volumes were more than three times more likely to be aggressive, violent and to show psychopathic traits three years later than men of the same age with more normal-sized amygdalas – independent of factors including history of violence and social background (Biological Psychiatry, 2013).'

If it's true that violent criminals have defective brain structures, how can we square that with capital punishment? Would we then be killing them for being ill? Generally speaking, healthy individuals don't kill. There's something extra happening in a person who is capable of taking a life.

Most of us have a healthy 'freeze' response when it comes to killing but in the armed forces this response is not what is required. The army understands that the average person looking through the crosshairs of an assault rifle won't kill a non-threatening target and so new recruits have to be conditioned to overcome this freeze response. The freeze response may also be absent in some religious extremists whose devotion to their faith enables them to take the lives of strangers in terrorist attacks. Murderers may lack the freeze response. People who enter schools and shoot children probably lack the freeze response. In general, I think we can assume that such individuals are deeply sick.

What is the best way to deal with such people? As humanists, we strive to give all of humanity a fair chance in life. Can rehabilitation work? Can conditioning be undone? Can education help shape individuals who grew up in abusive childhoods into acceptable members of society who can eventually be released from prison? I would argue, yes. The Scandinavian approach, often seen as more liberal or even soft, has shown positive results. For instance, prisoners in Norway can apply for a transfer to Bastøy Prison, a low-security prison on Bastøy Island, when they have up to five years left of their sentence to serve. Every type of offender, including men convicted of murder or rape, may be accepted, so long as they fit the criteria, the main one being a determination to live a crime-free life on release. There's a farm where prisoners tend sheep, cows and chickens, or grow fruit and vegetables. Other jobs are available in the laundry, in stables looking after horses that pull the island's cart transport, in the bicycle repair shop (many of the prisoners have their own bikes, bought with their own money), and on ground maintenance or in the timber workshop.

The reoffending rate appears to be lower than in the UK.

In the UK, however, when polled by YouGov, there is a surprising openness to the idea of execution, depending on the specific circumstances presented. Depending on the crime, slightly more than 50 per cent of Brits may express support for it. This suggests that maybe we're not as civilized here as we like to believe, when comparing ourselves with other countries.

YouGov stats on death penalty polling

For a humanist, the principle that 'the state shouldn't kill people' remains fundamental. We also look to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3, which states that 'Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.' I would like to believe that, as an intelligent species, we will strive to find ways to rehabilitate broken individuals rather than resorting to execution or indefinite imprisonment. Progressive countries have made strides in tackling some of these issues but the desire for vengeance, bloodlust, and retribution holds others back.


Bastøy Prison WIkipedia Guardian article

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1 Comment

Jul 20, 2023

I have opposed the principle of capital punishment for many years on the basis that most legal justice systems are fallible. Innocent people can be wrongly convicted of murder. Under a capital punishment system, it would be impossible to achieve any form of restitution for the unfortunate victim. Under a non-capital punishment system, restitution of some sort is possible. Another argument is that no civilised society should inflict state-sanctioned murder upon an alleged murderer. Such a form of punishment brings the state and wider society down to the same level as the murderer. Is that right?

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