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People may change mind about death penalty, but government?

  • DPP in the Media
  • 27 Jul 2021

Originally published in The Jakarta Post, Tuesday, July 27, 2021  (Read online)

Parvais Jabbar and Carolyn Hoyle

Public support for the death penalty has long been cited as one of the central arguments for its retention in Indonesia. Leaders can often appear to promote capital punishment, and a hardline on drugs because it is considered popular among voters. But does the public actually support capital punishment?  

Just months after he was elected in 2014, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ordered the resumption of executions after an unofficial, four-year moratorium. He has repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment to pursuing the harshest possible line in Indonesia’s war on drugs and since he took office, 18 people have been put to death. At the time of the last executions in 2016, local media reports put public support for the death penalty as high as 85 percent, but it is unclear how such numbers were collected and past polls have only ever been superficial or cursory in their questioning and analysis.  

Any discussion about the efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent or public support for it must be rooted in reliable academic data, yet rigorous research to substantiate either claim is worryingly absent from the debate.  

Since 2019, The Death Penalty Project and the University of Oxford Death Penalty Research Unit have worked in partnership with a leading human rights NGO in Jakarta, LBH Masyarakat, and with the Center on Human Rights, School of Law at the University of Indonesia to produce robust scientific evidence to evaluate and inform current drug control and wider criminal justice policies across Indonesia.  

As part of this ongoing program of research, and in response to the lack of reliable data on public opinion, we conducted nuanced surveys of both the public and opinion formers, to test the government’s assumptions about the public appetite for capital punishment.  

Asking the initial question of whether, in the abstract, they supported the death penalty, 69 percent of the public said that they did, though only 35 percent strongly supported it. In contrast, when asked the same question, 67 percent of opinion formers said they were against the death penalty and favored abolition.  

Despite the majority of the public responding in favor initially, when given realistic scenarios about its application, support declined dramatically. For example, only 40 percent thought that a man convicted of robbing a shop and killing the owner with a firearm should be executed. When told that this was his first offence, support fell to just 9 percent despite this being a serious and violent crime. This drop from 69 percent in the abstract, to 9 percent in a specific scenario, prompts us to ask does the public only support the death penalty hypothetically?  

Asked whether or not drug traffickers should always face execution, two-thirds of the public said yes, but presented with another realistic scenario, this time an uneducated, poor young man coerced into trafficking drugs through an airport, support fell dramatically with only 14 percent believing the death penalty to be an appropriate punishment.  

The study also examined how well informed the public and opinion formers were, finding that only 2 percent of the public considered themselves to be knowledgeable on the issue. Opinion formers on the other hand were fairly well informed about the death penalty yet felt that policy makers were not. The contrasting views of the public and opinion formers and their levels of knowledge on the issue, indicates that the more informed people are about capital punishment and its application, the less they support it.  

Despite expressing support for such an irrevocable and extreme punishment, only 4 percent of the public said they felt “very concerned” about the issue. Analyzed side-by-side, the findings imply that initial favor for the death penalty among the public is more a gut reaction than a well informed choice.  

There was belief among the public that the death penalty was only being applied to the “worst of the worst”, showing that many were not aware that the majority of those imprisoned, and on death row, were sentenced for low level drug crime. Just 7 percent knew that two-thirds of those on death row had been convicted of drug related crimes and just 5 percent knew the number of executions carried out in the past 10 years.  

When discussing who should be excluded from capital punishment, such as juveniles and other vulnerable groups, 46 percent of the public felt that those from disadvantaged backgrounds should not be executed. The research evidenced a great deal of sympathy toward offenders from poor or difficult backgrounds, indicating they were unaware that the majority of those sentenced to death, or to long custodial sentences, tend to be the poorest and most disadvantaged.  

When asked which measures they would choose to deter crime, only 9 percent of the public suggested increasing death sentences. Across both the public and opinion formers there was a clear preference for social justice policies such as better moral education of young people, poverty reduction, better housing and therapeutic interventions for those who use drugs.  

By delving beyond the binary yes/no questions, our research has shown that public support for capital punishment in Indonesia is not as clear cut as it first appears. It evidences that people are open to change and, with wider engagement and more information, would come to accept the abolition of the death penalty.  

We are hopeful that the current pause in executions and increasing calls from the National Narcotics Agency (BNN) for rehabilitation over death sentences for those convicted of drug related crimes, shows an openness to exploring new approaches.  

As policymakers look to reform the Criminal Code, we hope that our nuanced independent analysis of public opinion will support policy makers, both in Indonesia and the wider region, as they address the future of capital punishment.   

Parvais Jabbar is co-executive director of The Death Penalty Project. Carolyn Hoyle is professor of criminology at the University of Oxford, director of The Death Penalty Research Unit, and co-author of The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective (OUP, 2015).

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