SOMETIMES it feels like humanity is going backwards, not forwards. Nowhere is this more acute than in attitudes towards crime and punishment.

In the final days of Trump, holed up in the White House bunker, he ramped up executions in America at a grotesque, even blood-curdling rate. He now has the unsavoury distinction of being the president who presided over the death by federal government of more American civilians in six months than in the six previous decades.

One of the 13 people executed in this short time was a woman called Lisa Montgomery, who had committed a terrible crime that shocked America. However, behind the lurid headlines, Montgomery had severe mental health problems after a history of repeated sexual and physical abuse as well as chronic neglect as a child, so severe in its nature as to be described as “torture” by the experts who examined her. Nothing can detract from the abject horror of the murder she undoubtedly committed, but even the most ardent of death penalty advocates seldom argue that a mentally ill person should end up on death row.

A coalition of US civil and human rights groups are calling on President Biden to immediately commute the sentences of the remaining 49 federal death row inmates as well as reinstate a moratorium on executions. They are banking on Biden’s promise to strengthen “America’s commitment to justice” as well as his pledges on racial justice. Because no less than 20 of these prisoners are African American, and the aim of the coalition is to persuade the president to use his executive powers and bring a halt to this barbaric practice.

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Let us all hope that Biden lives up to his progressive pledges.

Back in the UK, some politicians are still well behind. Only a couple of years ago, a Tory MP discussed bringing back the death penalty. At the time, John Hayes, MP for South Holland and the Deepings, asked the Justice Secretary to consider the “potential merits” of hanging violent criminals. Hayes wanted the courts to have the option of capital punishment so that they could hang criminals such as Khalid Masood, the Westminster Bridge attacker. Masood was of course shot dead after his slaughter of several pedestrians and PC Keith Palmer back in March 2017.

At the time, the then justice minister reminded Hayes that his government “opposes the use of the death penalty in all circumstances and has no plans to reintroduce it”. Undeterred, Hayes insisted that there should be a re-examination on what is a “fitting punishment” adding that he felt most people in the UK would think hanging a terrorist such as Masood would have been deemed “appropriate”.

But what do people really think on this matter? When the issue is argued through, public opinion is far from unequivocal on restoration.

Certainly, one of Hayes’s colleagues has talked about her support for it in the past. For the first time in a generation, the UK has a Home Secretary who seems to personally favour the death penalty. Devotees of old episodes of Question Time can see Ian Hislop of Private Eye performing a public service in 2011 by shredding her arguments for the death penalty as a deterrent. Hislop, citing well-established miscarriages of justice in relation to those convicted of Irish terrorist bombings, pointed out that it wasn’t really much of a deterrence killing the wrong people. The audience sentiment swung and actually ended up laughing at the threadbare arguments of the hapless Priti Patel.

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Given the draconian measures the Home Secretary is busy drawing up for refugees and migrants, such as sending them off to a rock somewhere in the Atlantic or locking them in Covid-riddled barracks, she won’t be winning the “human rights politician of the year” award any time soon.

Whenever this discussion rears its ugly head, I think about Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, who were murdered by convicted terrorist, Usman Khan, at a prisoner rehabilitation event in London back in November 2019.

Both Merritt and Jones were attending the “Learning Together’ conference organised by Cambridge University when they were fatally stabbed by Khan. They were both involved in prisoner rehabilitation and support, they were both fully committed to helping people in the criminal justice system, they lived and died in pursuit of that hope, they could see behind the simplistic headlines and calls for harsher punishments, they could see the person, their lives, their reasons for ending up behind bars.

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One of Saskia Jones’s lecturers described her as “a force for good”; another professor described Jack Merritt as an advocate for the “politics of love”, working “tirelessly in dark places to pull towards the light”. That these two amazing young people were taken in such a brutal manner while playing such a key role in helping prisoners is unjust beyond words. But you can be sure that they would see the death penalty as an abhorrence, that they would have campaigned to make sure that sound-bite MPs were rejected for their knee jerk, mob rule banalities.

This needs to be said again and again. This issue is not settled or consigned to the dust of history. In a civilised society, there can be no place for the death penalty. I wish the coalition of human and civil rights groups well in their endeavours to persuade President Biden take the stand for decency, humanity and hope.