Sunday, July 04, 2010

Does the Death Penalty Deter Capital Crime?

Apparently not. The statistics don't support this idea. Quite the reverse.

12 comments:

bossmanham said...

I think the death penalty is appropriate not simply as a deterrent, but as a means of exacting justice. If it doesn't deter crime, so what? It may be necessary anyway.

Victor Reppert said...

That could very well be. But that is a different argument entirely.

Paul Manata said...

I think there's tons of missing data there. Many things could explain those stats. Population size alone could make a huge difference. Changes in death penality laws *along with other policy changes* could play a factor too. That's why the best deterence arguments has never been about reducing the murder *rate*, it's been about reducing *murders*. So I can make the Obama argument from the stimulus creating *or saving* n jobs. :-) Anyway, it's a difficult argument to make, no where near as simplistic as the biased site you link to suggests, see here for example:

http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~cook/movabletype/archives/2006/01/decision_analys_2.html

However, I do think it is prima facie obvious that if, say, a law of nature produced the effect of death every single time a murderer murdered someone, we'd see less murders.

Anonymous said...

The problem is, it's not just the death penalty, but how it's enforced, how likely it is to be applied, etc.

Outlawing tobacco in bars won't deter smoking in bars if it's never enforced, for example. Not that this is 1:1 comparable with the death penalty, but you get the idea.

DL said...

It sure deters recidivists!

Victor Reppert said...

What that seems to suggest to me is that the death penalty might be an effective deterrent if the appeals process for capital murderers were shortened, so that people would get executed sooner, and more frequently.

The problem, of course, is that the appeals process was put in to protect against executing innocent people, since the death penalty, unlike imprisonment, is irreversible. There is already the possibility of executing the wrong people, but if you reduce the appeals process, that risk becomes greater.

Further, there have been several exonerations recently, including Ray Krone in our own state of Arizona. So it does look like the concern about innocent people is justified. You can make it a deterrent so long as you aren't overly concerned about the innocent people you might execute.

Victor Reppert said...

Of course, you have to let recidivists out in order for them to be recidivists.

Paul Manata said...

Hi Victor,

As you mentioned to Bossmanham, "That could very well be. But that is a different argument entirely." :-)

What that seems to suggest to me is that the death penalty might be an effective deterrent if the appeals process for capital murderers were shortened, so that people would get executed sooner, and more frequently.

A point which could explain your data. Many murderers just don't "see" the death penalty as a reality. Humans notoriously engage in foolish behavior if the consequences are far enough down the road. Out of sight, out of mind. Many of them may reason that *if* they get caught, they still get to live another 20-30 years, which they might consider a "full" life. Of course, when it comes time to pay the piper they pee their pants and cry for mommy. They apologize and which they could take it back. They have a "come to Jesus" moment. These things suggest that the argument from deterrence is more sophisticated than those who employ those stats suggest.

DL said...

Victor Reppert: Of course, you have to let recidivists out in order for them to be recidivists.

Well — that has happened many times, alas. And no, you don't have to let them out; prisoners kill other prisoners too ... or guards.

Anyway, imprisonment isn't irreversible. You can truncate a long sentence, but if an innocent man was sitting in prison for 20 years, you can't give him those decades back. (Nor even the rest of his life fully, if his reputation is tainted, etc.)

Unfortunately, capital punishment is an issue where both sides react mainly with emotional anecdotes and unhelpful statistics. (For example, what is the linked page supposed to show? The murder rates aren't merely about the same for states with or without the death penalty; in many cases, they're higher. So it doesn't deter crime, it... encourages it?? Or is it just that those states have more crime in the first place? It's very difficult, if not impossible, to put such numbers into a meaningful context.)

Victor Reppert said...

I think deterrence has to be somewhere down the list of considerations for the death penalty, at best. You first have to realize that the criminal expects to get away with the crime.

You have, I think, a dilemma when it comes to the deterrent effects of the death penalty. It looks as if, to get those deterrent effects, you have to shorten the appeals process. You have Ronnie Lee Gardner being finally executed for a crime he committed in 1985. Now no one will be deterred by that. Commit a murder, and you might be exectued 25 years later?

But the appeals process is motivated by a need to take special care that we don't execute the innocent. I think that special care is fully warranted, given the number of exonerations in recent years due to DNA evidence. But if we were willing to risk more mistakes, we might get more of a deterrent. But for a criminal to be deterred by capital punishment, they would have to be considering the possibility of getting caught, then convicted, and then sentenced to death. They have to be ready to accept the possibility of a life sentence but not an execution. I'm afraid that encompasses a relatively small class of potential murderers, even with a shortened appeals process.

So, whatever we think about the death penalty (and it can be defended on retributive grounds instead), we need real evidence for the deterrence claim based on hard evidence. I don't see it.

dudleysharp said...

Of course the death penalty deters.

All prospects of a negative outcome deter some. It is a truism. The death penalty, the most severe of criminal sanctions, is the least likely of all criminal sanctions to violate that truism.


1) 27 recent studies finding for deterrence, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation
http://www.cjlf.org/deathpenalty/DPDeterrence.htm


2) "Deterrence & the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock"
http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/07/02/deterrence-and-the-death-penalty-a-reply-to-radelet-and-lacock.aspx


3) "Death Penalty, Deterrence & Murder Rates: Let's be clear"
http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2009/03/death-penalty-deterrence-murder-rates.html


4) This is out of date, but corrects a number of the misconceptions about deterrence.

"Death Penalty and Deterrence"
http://homicidesurvivors.com/2006/03/20/the-death-penalty-as-a-deterrent--confirmed--seven-recent-studies-updated-61204.aspx


5) "The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents"
http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/07/05/the-death-penalty-more-protection-for-innocents.aspx

dudleysharp said...

Of course the death penalty deters. A review of the debate.
Dudley Sharp

1) Anti death penalty folks say that the burden of proof is on those who say that the death penalty deters. Untrue. It is a rational truism that all potential negative outcomes deter some - there is no exception. It is the burden of death penalty opponents to prove that the death penalty, the most severe of criminal sanctions, is the only prospect of a negative outcome that deters none. They cannot.

2) There have been 27 recent studies finding for death penalty deterrence. A few of those have been criticized. The criticism has, itself been rebutted and/or the criticism doesn't negate no. 1 or nos. 3-10.

3) No deterrence study finds that the death penalty deters none. They cannot.

4) About 99% of those murderers who are subject to the death penalty do everything they can to receive a lesser sentence, in pre trial, plea bargains, trial, in appeals and in clemency/commutation proceedings. Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life. No surprise. Would a more rational group, those who choose not to murder, also share in that overwhelming fear of death and be deterred by the prospects of execution? Of course.

5) There are a number of known cases of individual deterrence, those potential murderers who have stated that they were prevented from committing murder because of their fear of the death penalty. Individual deterrence exists.

6) General deterrence exists because individual deterrence cannot exist without it.

7) Even the dean of anti death penalty academics, Hugo Adam Bedau, agrees that the death penalty deters .. . but he doesn't believe it deters more than a life sentence. Nos. 4-6 and 10 provide anecdotal and rational evidence that the death penalty is a greater deterrent than a life sentence. In addition, the 27 studies finding for deterrence, find that the death penalty is an enhanced deterrent over a life sentence.

8) All criminal sanctions deter. If you doubt that, what do you think would happen if we ended all criminal sanctions? No rational person has any doubt. Some would have us, irrationally, believe that the most severe sanction, execution, is the only sanction which doesn't deter.

9) If we execute and there is no deterrence, we have justly punished a murderer and have prevented that murderer from ever harming/murdering, again. If we execute and there is deterrence, we have those benefits, plus we have spared more innocent lives. If we don't execute and there is deterrence, we have spared murderers at the cost of more innocent deaths.

10) Overwhelmingly, people prefer life over death and fear death more than life.


"If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call." John McAdams - Marquette University/Department of Political Science