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On trial

It's 50 years since the House of Commons voted to abolish capital punishment. David Rosenberg takes the opportunity to ask pupils to debate the death penalty

Have you ever thought about stealing a sheep? In the early 1800s, sheep stealing was a capital offence. Impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner, or living with gypsies for a month, hardly seem morally equivalent to bludgeoning your neighbour to death, yet these, too, were among 220 capital crimes at that time. In the 19th century, the age of criminal responsibility was eight, and 3,518 people were hanged in England and Wales, barely 40 per cent of them for murder.

The reformer Sir Robert Peel drastically reduced the number of capital crimes. But in Victorian Britain only a few brave souls rejected capital punishment. Charles Dickens was one. "The barest possibility of mistake is a sufficient reason against the taking of a human life which nothing can restore," he protested in 1846.

Members of the Howard Association, set up in 1866, added their voice. Named after John Howard, who made seven journeys across Europe in the late 18th century in search of a humane prison system, they continue to campaign today as the Howard League for Penal Reform.

This month marks 50 years since the House of Commons voted to abolish capital punishment in Britain. But the democratically elected MPs were then over-ruled by the unelected Lords. It took until the mid-1960s to remove the death penalty in all but untested piracy and treason cases. In the interim, two Scots, 18-year-old Francis Forsyth and 19-year-old Anthony Miller, became the last teenagers to hang in Britain for murder, both executed in 1960.

Since then, Britain's recorded crime rate has grown, the annual level of murders has more than doubled and the prison population has mushroomed from 15,000 to more than 70,000. Not surprisingly, fear of crime has grown too.

Ripe conditions, indeed, for the "hang 'em and flog 'em brigade" baying for the return of the noose, egged on by the tabloid press. Yet a YouGov opinion poll published last month revealed that, for the first time since Britain outlawed capital punishment, less than half the population want it restored. The global picture is changing, too. By 1979 only 19 countries had abolished the death penalty. Now it is 81 countries. A further 32 retain it in law but have not imposed death sentences for many years. A minority of countries today exercise the death penalty, led by China, Iran, Vietnam, the US and Saudi Arabia.

Crime and punishment matter to young people. They are its principal victims, though the media prefer to highlight their role as perpetrators.

The introduction of citizenship compels schools to teach about the criminal justice system and human rights. Focusing on the historical, philosophical and practical questions about the death penalty provides the gateway to broader issues of justice and rights, making the topic rewarding to teach and valuable for the students. Every student has an opinion on capital punishment, perhaps reflecting the extent to which crime stories pervade the media. As students unearth the arguments for and against capital punishment they will inevitably confront deeper and broader issues of justice, restitution and the purpose of punishment and raise their own critical questions about the efficacy of our criminal justice system. They might also suggest new and better ways to resolve conflicts within the classroom.

Scrutinising the death penalty presents many cross-curricular opportunities. By using a debating format you can encourage persuasive argument and writing. History and geography can blend by mapping capital punishment. Students will discover several Caribbean islands which retain capital punishment statutes imposed by former colonial masters. And they will discover the death-penalty-free zone of Latin America. Indeed, the first country to outlaw capital punishment was Venezuela, as long ago as 1853.

It also affords an opportunity to introduce philosophical concepts. As students list the arguments in support of capital punishment, they can categorise them as "retributive" - focusing on punishing the offender in proportion to the crime committed - or "utilitarian" - focusing on the benefits to society. A utilitarian argument might be that it deters others from committing similar crimes, or it saves the cost of maintaining the offender in prison.

The strongest single argument against capital punishment remains that stated by Charles Dickens - the possibility of executing an innocent person. Britain has granted posthumous pardons to a number of individuals who were hanged in the 1950s. In the US, thousands remain on Death Row, for years, appealing against their convictions. Since the 1970s, more than 120 of them have been released after proving their innocence.

Students will undoubtedly put forward other arguments, the most challenging being whether, by putting someone to death, the state itself performs an immoral act. From their own experiences of getting into trouble at school, students are also likely to raise the issue of rehabilitation. The question of rehabilitation forces debates to take place about the motives of the perpetrator and purpose of punishment. Are they mad or bad, evil or sick? Do they need treatment more than punishment? Is the purpose to exact revenge on the offender or to encourage the perpetrator to change their ways? As more countries reject the death penalty, there has been a revival of interest in the concept and practice of restorative justice, a model long practised in many non-industrial societies where the offender makes amends to repair the harm they have done to both victim and community.

Britain may have consigned capital punishment to the dustbin of history but disturbing facts still blight its criminal justice system. In 2002, 94 inmates of UK prisons committed suicide. In 20042005, 50 former prisoners in the UK committed suicide within a year of being released, and 36 people died in police custody in Britain. Despite Britain ratifying the UN Convention on Children's Rights, there are 2,500 young people aged 18 or under who are on remand or serving sentences in adult prisons.

If our students have an understanding of these issues, perhaps they will be better placed to reverse this situation for the coming generation.

David Rosenberg is citizenship co-ordinator at Hanover Primary School, London borough of Islington Issues for debate l Has the media determined or merely reflected public opinion on capital punishment?

* When Parliament outlawed capital punishment, opinion polls showed 79 per cent of the population in favour of retaining the death penalty. Should Parliament always reflect public opinion?

* Supporters of capital punishment use the idea made popular by the 17th-century philosopher John Locke, that "criminals forfeit their rights".

Do you agree with his statement?

* What do you think should be the age of criminal responsibility? Why?

* Why do you think the recorded crime rate and the rate of murders has gone up in Britain?

* Should the victims of a crime have a say in the nature and length of punishment?

* Do you think there are other crimes that are the moral equivalent of murder, eg drug-trafficking, attempted murder through terrorism?

* The moving force behind the abolition of capital punishment in Britain was a backbench MP, Sidney Silverman. Find out how he persuaded Parliament to support him and what other issues and campaigns he was committed to.

* Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a strong proponent of restorative justice.

South Africa's post-apartheid government abolished the death penalty and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with apartheid-related crimes. Find out how it has progressed and the dilemmas it has faced.



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