Saturday, September 27, 2014

Finding Death Penalty Deterrence Evidence Is Like Finding a Needle in a Haystack

Although there are only a small handful of executions per annum, the death penalty remains a hot-button issue, even with decreasing support. Today, I don't want to get into how many innocent people die on Death Row, ethical qualms with capital punishment, or how your "typical conservative" advocates for the death penalty while claiming to be pro-life or wanting less government in our lives. What I simply want to ask is whether the institution of the death penalty acts as a deterrent for people committing more crimes or not.

It's obvious that deterrence involves the discouragement of a certain act. In this case, one of the goals of the death penalty is to discourage crime, specifically murder. The question here is "Who are we trying to deter?" Are we only trying to deter those who have previously murdered and are currently imprisoned? If so, then the death penalty is very effective as a deterrent. After all, dead men can't commit more acts of murder.

If we are trying to deter society as a whole, then that is a different story all together. In an American context, if I had to guess why the death penalty would not be effective, it would be because it is so infrequently and arbitrarily implemented. Also, with most capital crimes such as these, either the murder was in the heat in the moment or the murderer is so depraved and callous towards human life that nothing will deter the individual.

Any conducted studies that have allegedly found correlation never considered the possibility of noncapital punishment effects on homicide rates. In a 2012 report by the Committee on Deterrence and the Death Penalty, the main finding was that there was no proven deterrent effect that was unique to the death penalty (p. 29). The vast majority of criminologists have also found that the death penalty does not create any additional deterrence that life in prison would create (Radelet and Lacock, 2009).

I have major apprehensions giving the government power over life and death itself. Even if I were going to analyze the death penalty based on consequentialist terms, you better believe that I would like some evidence that the death penalty actually works. This is all the more so true when we are talking about the government curtailing personal liberty. The only thing that we know about the death penalty are its liabilities, not its benefits (Lamperti, 2010). I also have to wonder why one would even use deterrence as a primary argument for the death penalty. If deterrence were a factor, why not televise it so everyone can see it? How about making it long and excruciating as possible so it scares would-be criminals? Why not apply it to other crimes? Not only is the evidence of deterrence lacking, but even if the evidence existed, it would hardly make the death penalty a justifiable practice. There are certainly better alternatives for deterring crime.


  1. You make a strong and compelling case that the death penalty is not a deterrent for future crimes. For me, the death penalty was never about deterrence, but rather punishment, a moral and just punishment. Capital punishment should be used sparingly, and be reserved for only the most heinous of crimes, after thorough adjudication. There are some crimes that are so grievous, and such an affront to human values that a just society demands the state have the authority to impose the ultimate punishment. Although, we seemingly disagree on capital punishment, you are one of my favorite bloggers and I read your posts on regular basis. Keep up the fine work. -- Nonknower

    1. Dear estherms,

      First, I want to thank you for your compliment. I am glad that you appreciate my blog. As for punishment, I certainly understand the impetus of your argument. I've wondered that myself ( It's certainly more difficult to objectively argue that either way because a) it cannot be evidence-based, and b) it's more normative in nature. Perhaps I will write that blog entry somewhere down the road.

  2. John Lott had something to say about this, his wrticle is here:

    1. Dear Willy,

      I thank you for providing the Lott article. I read this article, as well as the exchange leading up to this article. I respect Lott greatly for the work he has done to prove that gun control doesn't work. However, I have to disagree with him on this one. Even if the NRC did omit some studies and Lott did find all the peer-reviewed studies (selection bias is a hard thing to contend with, right?), we run into a bigger issue. To paraphrase this study (Donohue and Wolfers, 2006), the sample size of death penalty cases is so small that it is too difficult to derive meaning from any correlations. This is an important point to make because most of the studies Lott cites predate the Donohue and Wolfers study, thereby covering them under this problem. The death penalty is so infrequently and arbitrarily implemented that the studies out there are not statistically significant, which is why we really cannot consider any current studies on the matter to prove deterrence one way or another.