OUR OPINION: Executions and prisons

Staff Writer
Gonzales Weekly Citizen

London-based Amnesty International reported last week that known government executions around the world doubled last year.

Amnesty said the number of people sentenced to death jumped from 3,347 in 2007 to 8,864 in 2008. Of those, 2,390 people were executed in 25 countries, up from 1,252 in 2007.

China was responsible for nearly three-quarters of the reported deaths.

China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States committed over 90 percent of the executions worldwide, according to Amnesty.

Only one European nation, Belarus, still utilizes the death penalty, executing around 400 people since 1991, and the organization called on that nation to abolish its death penalty.

Iran executes prisoners under the age of 18 at the time of their alleged crime, a violation of international law.

In China the number of executions is cloaked in secrecy and Amnesty believes the numbers there could be much greater.

Only 25 of the 59 countries that practice capital punishment reported an execution in 2008. 

Amnesty Secretary General Irene Khan said fewer countries performing executions suggests the world as a whole is moving closer to an execution free planet.

Amnesty said the 37 people executed in the United States last year is the lowest number since 1995, and that this is one indication the U.S. is slowly turning away from the death penalty.

In the United States where the death penalty is a polarizing issue, many support executions as a deterrent to crime, while others are not so sure that is the case. Some are against executions because of the number of people who have been convicted, sentenced to death and executed only to later be found innocent.

Today, about one in every 31 adults in the U.S. is either in jail, or prison, or on supervised release. Americans have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and we house about 25 percent of the people in jail or prison worldwide on any given day.

Our prison population has quadrupled from 580,000 in 1984 to 2.3 million today. The Justice Department estimates about 350,000 of those behind bars are mentally ill, while small-time drug users and dealers make up roughly a third of the total.

Certainly dangerous criminals are in prison as well, and some of them are on death row.

But if we have so many people in jail, many are asking whether the death penalty is in fact deterring crime in America.

The nation is presently dealing with a gut-wrenching economic problem, but when the financial ship of state is righted, issues like the death penalty and prisons crowded with non-violent offenders will move to the forefront.

How America ultimately deals with its criminal element in terms of prison, executions and rehabilitation will greatly affect the character of  the nation in the 21st century.