A Pioneering Study of Public Opinion on the Death Penalty in Ghana Suggests the Unpopularity of the Death Penalty as Punishment for Crime
Contrary to popular perceptions, a survey by the Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice (Ghana) finds that the majority of Ghanaians are opposed to the death penalty. When asked specifically about abolition of the death penalty for murder, 61.7% expressed support for abolition while 39.3% opposed abolition for murder. The study arose in the context of recent efforts by the Government of Ghana to abolish the death penalty. In 2010, the Government of Ghana set up a Constitutional Review Commission to review key aspects of the Ghana Constitution. One of its terms of reference was to reconsider the death penalty as an entrenched provision in the Constitution. The final report of the Commission in 2011 recommended abolishing the death penalty and replacing it with imprisonment for life without parole. The Commission’s recommendation was based on four main arguments. First, Ghana’s current status as a de facto abolitionist ‘does not adequately punish people convicted of crimes that are punishable by death.’ Second, that the death penalty has the danger of ‘invariably transforming [the State] into a killer and there is no justification for the State to become a killer’. Third, that ‘in almost every part of the globe, countries have abolished the death penalty…It can thus be seen that current international opinion is predominantly in favour of abolishing of the death penalty’. The fourth justification offered was based on an argument about the sanctity of life.
The Government issued a White Paper in 2012 in which it accepted the Commission’s recommendation to abolish the death penalty. It justified its decision on the basis of the sanctity of life, which it contended was ‘a value so much ingrained in the Ghanaian social psyche that it cannot be gambled away with judicial uncertainties’.
With this strong indication that the government supports the abolition of the death penalty, it would be easy to conclude that the main hurdle confronting abolitionists has been overcome. However, this might not be the case. There are reasons for caution, not least because the death penalty is an entrenched constitutional provision. This means that the abolition of the death penalty is only possible through a nationwide referendum receiving majority support. Given what we know from research evidence on public opinion on the death penalty, this requirement is a major concern for death penalty abolitionists. Unfortunately, there is no research on public opinion on the death penalty in Ghana. While the Commission carried out a public consultation prior to making its recommendations, there are a number of problems with the procedure adopted. Its restrictive approach and almost exclusive focus on opinion leaders and key stakeholders such as professional bodies and advocacy groups meant that the majority of ordinary Ghanaians could not participate fully in the consultation process.
Knowing what the public thinks about the death penalty is no trivial matter for governments in sub-Saharan Africa, where the criminal justice systems are perceived as corrupt and ineffective. For example, uncertainties about public opinion have fueled concerns about a possible backlash effect in the form of vigilante violence following abolition. Abolishing the death penalty in a context of perceived high crime rates and feelings of insecurity could have real political costs (which perhaps explains Ghana’s hesitation in signing the Second Optional Protocol to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights).
This underscores the importance of a methodologically rigorous public opinion survey to understand the nature of public attitudes to the death penalty and factors that might be implicated. This was the rationale for our survey, carried out under the auspices of the Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice (Ghana). The survey presented the first serious effort to empirically investigate public opinion on the death penalty in Africa. The survey, which was funded by the Smuts Memorial Fund and the Cambridge-Africa Alborada Research Fund, comprised a total sample of 2460 adults (18+) randomly selected from four communities in Accra, reflecting the varying socio-economic and ethnic composition of the capital city: high-class communities; middle-class communities; indigenous lower-class communities; and migrant lower-class communities.
The results from the survey were both interesting and surprising. Perhaps the most important finding was that views on the death penalty in Ghana did not appear to be polarized. Contrary to popular belief, 54.3% of the Ghanaians sampled were strongly opposed to the death penalty. This compares with 9.7 % who expressed strong support, while 36% were moderately in support of the death penalty. When asked specifically about abolition of the death penalty for murder, 61.7% expressed support for abolition while 39.3% opposed abolition for murder. Among the small minority who strongly endorsed the death penalty (9.7%), 7 in 10 would support a discretionary death penalty in place of the current mandatory death penalty. The most preferred replacement for the death penalty was life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. This was closely followed by those who preferred life with a possibility of release based on some future risk assessment. Whether or not one was a victim of crime or had a close family member or friend who had been a victim of crime mattered little. Among the proponents of abolition, the two prominent reasons for their position were the sanctity of life and the possibility of executing innocent people.
The second important finding was that the public had very limited knowledge of the type of crimes that attracted the death penalty. The majority of people interviewed wrongly identified robbery as a crime that attracts the death penalty. A possible reason for this misperception might be that robberies, as reported in the media, sometimes involve details about the rape and maiming of victims. Third, there was evidence that demographic factors influenced support for the death penalty. The two most important demographic factors were level of education and type of neighbourhood. People with higher levels of education and residents in high-class neighbourhoods were more likely to oppose the death penalty and to support abolition. Surprisingly, people living in lower-class indigenous areas were more opposed to the death penalty than residents in middle-class areas and lower-class migrant areas. A possible explanation could be the strong kinship or affinity in indigenous lower-class neighbourhoods, which meant that people were more likely to be associated with both victims and offenders. The survey found no evidence of a possible backlash effect in the form of vigilante violence among people interviewed. Finally, we examined the role of evidence in changing attitudes towards the death penalty, focusing on evidence on deterrence, innocence and the global trend towards abolition. Of these three, providing evidence of the possibility of executing innocent people had the greatest impact on people’s attitudes toward death penalty. The least convincing was presenting evidence on global trends towards abolition. Such evidence did not change peoples’ views on the death penalty.
As can be seen, there is much to be gained from conducting a methodologically sound empirical survey on public opinion on the death penalty. Such research could help provide evidence-based insight into a rather complex issue. Preparations for the referendum on the proposals of the Constitutional Review Commission have stalled due to a court case challenging the constitutionality of the process. In October 2015, the Supreme Court dismissed the case, thereby clearing the way for the preparation to resume. We hope that the important findings from this survey will contribute to shaping the debate and inform advocacy work on the abolition of the death penalty in Ghana.
— Kofi E. Boakye, PhD, is a Lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.
— Justice Tankebe, PhD, is a Lecturer in Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.