Originally published in The Jakarta Post, 12th December 2019 (Read online)
By Carolyn Hoyle and Parvais Jabbar
Despite similar challenges from drug trafficking, Southeast Asian countries are travelling along different roads in search of solutions. For example, following a crackdown on drug trafficking, the Philippines seeks to reintroduce the death penalty for drug-related crimes. Meanwhile, Malaysia’s new administration has signalled its intention to abolish the mandatory death penalty for drug offenses.
What we find in most Southeast Asian countries, however, is an absence of rigorous empirical data to inform policy choices. Without evidence on efficacy, governments, including in Indonesia, justify the retention and execution of the death penalty by reference to its supposed deterrent effect and the public appetite for harsh punishments.
In early December the University of Indonesia hosted a Human Rights Festival that highlighted, among other things, the ongoing revision of the Criminal Code to include sentencing and alternative punishments in the most serious cases. In this context, we focus on our current research on the death penalty in Indonesia.
For decades, Indonesia’s commitment to the death penalty for drug traffickers has been visible in the steady pace of death sentences. Over the last 20 years, this has put almost 300 people on death row, 186 of whom have been convicted for drug offenses, and produced 44 executions, 24 for drug trafficking.
Both ideology and theory have sustained this punitive criminal justice policy. The ideology links the nation’s social fabric and its economic and moral well-being to a forceful response to drug trafficking. Claims about drug fatalities sustain the belief that only the harshest punishment, death, is appropriate for drug traffickers. Hence, the government justified the 18 executions for drug offenses in 2015 and 2016, citing “a state of emergency” caused by drugs.
Proponents of capital punishment claim — without rigorous evidence — that Indonesian society, including its opinion leaders, are committed to the death penalty and further, that it must be retained for its deterrent effect.
Deterrence has been cited in debates supporting a succession of laws and court opinions for over two decades. The beliefs both in deterrence and in the destructive power of drugs are reciprocal, with each reinforcing the other in a discourse that closes off thoughtful consideration of the facts.
Support for the death penalty among opinion leaders, and in turn the public, relies on official statistics on drug-related deaths that suggest that drug misuse has devastating consequences for the health of the nation. In January 2015, following executions, the government claimed that between 55 and 85 persons died each day from drugs. These figures were revised to approximately 20 to 25 in 2018, suggesting a strong downward trend in recent years.
That said, there is little transparency around any of these numbers and no workable or precise definition of “drug-related deaths”. Either way, there is no clear relationship between declining deaths and executions, given that there have been none over the past three years.
Data on drug deaths seem as unscientifically grounded as claims of an illicit drug pandemic. Government and public support of the death penalty is based on faith more than on facts.
Across the world, governments have embraced the notion of evidence-based policy; a foundation of reliable empirical evidence on which to ground public policy. Does the claim of deterrence stack up against this standard? Do estimates of extremely high rates of “drug-related deaths” meet the criteria of reliable evidence? The answer is no on both counts.
Over five decades of robust research on the deterrent effects of the death penalty, especially in the United States, has established no deterrent effect from either death sentences or executions. While these studies were focused on murder, they provide a blueprint for systematic research to assess deterrence for drug crimes in Southeast Asia.
Given that estimates of the number of drug-related deaths in Indonesia are unreliable, methods developed overseas can provide Indonesia with scientific evidence to evaluate the decision to place the death penalty at the forefront of drug-control policy.
Similarly, superficial public opinion research in various countries has demonstrated the limitations of surveys that fail to reveal the strength of opinion or what knowledge of the administration of criminal justice that opinion is based on.
If opinion leaders, who shape public opinion, are to articulate strong support for capital punishment we must measure the strength and coherence of their opinions.
The death penalty is controversial in most societies that practice it, including Indonesia. Criminal policy on drug offenses, or decisions about the death penalty, should not be made without taking note of the findings of rigorous, independent empirical research. This is an important opportunity for Indonesia to develop its own evidence-based policies on drugs, crime and capital punishment.
Carolyn Hoyle is professor of criminology at the University of Oxford and coauthor of The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective (OUP, 2015). Parvais Jabbar is coexecutive director of The Death Penalty Project, an international NGO that promotes and protects the rights of those facing the death penalty.