Jay Reding.com

Does The Death Penalty Work?

The Washington Post notes that a series of studies are confirming that the death penalty does have a deterrent effect on crime:

“Science does really draw a conclusion. It did. There is no question about it,” said Naci Mocan, an economics professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. “The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect.”

A 2003 study he co-authored, and a 2006 study that re-examined the data, found that each execution results in five fewer homicides, and commuting a death sentence means five more homicides. “The results are robust, they don’t really go away,” he said. “I oppose the death penalty. But my results show that the death penalty (deters) — what am I going to do, hide them?”

Statistical studies like his are among a dozen papers since 2001 that capital punishment has deterrent effects. They all explore the same basic theory — if the cost of something (be it the purchase of an apple or the act of killing someone) becomes too high, people will change their behavior (forego apples or shy from murder).

I’m not quite sure that the science is quite that conclusive. Would the death penalty really have a deterrent effect on heat of passion murders? If people were that rational, the murder rate wouldn’t seem to be what it is. Still, the basic theory seems to hold. If someone knows that they can quite literally get away with murder, there’s a much greater chance that they will be more apt to kill. What remains to be seen is whether it’s really the death penalty that does it or the collateral effects of the death penalty. One would assume that a state with a death penalty would be less likely to be lenient in non-capital cases as well — although that’s a blind assumption on my part.

Still, this does raise a rather difficult moral question. If executing one (presumably guilty) party saves the lives of 5 innocents, is it morally permissible for the state to execute those found guilty of capital murder? What if the person isn’t guilty? If executing the innocent has the same deterrent effect how does that change the calculus?

I’ve always been on the fence when it comes to this issue. There are crucial moral and political objections to the idea that the state should have the power to execute someone — but at the same time, if there truly is a deterrent effect is it really moral to potentially trade the lives of many innocents for one person? Add to the mix the possibility of executing the innocent and things get more complicated.

Even if the evidence is conclusive that capital punishment deters murders, that doesn’t answer the deeper moral questions surrounding this issue. Even if the death penalty does work, society still has to come to grips with the moral implications of such a calculus — and that is an issue that remains one that should be up to the individual conscience of voters rather than the unelected courts.

14 responses to “Does The Death Penalty Work?”

  1. Mark says:

    “Even if the evidence is conclusive that capital punishment deters murders, that doesn’t answer the deeper moral questions surrounding this issue.”

    The evidence will NEVER be conclusive. There are alternative studies expressing a complete inverse to the data presented here. Everybody has an agenda.

    Just from a common sense standpoint, it strikes me as assinine to suggest that the death penalty has ever deterred a single crime. Whether it’s a passion killing or a tactfully thought-out homicide committed by a psychopath, do we really believe that would-be killer would think twice upon the realization that, 15 years down the line, that needle full of poison in my arm is gonna sting?

    And why is the homicide rate in nations without a death penalty not five times as high as the homicide rate in America, if we’re really to believe that the presence of the death penalty saves five innocent lives?

    Death penalty shills have a long way to go before they’re able to make hay out of data such as that presented above which completely and unequivocally defies common sense and statistical constitency with other nations that have no death penalty but lower homicide rates.

  2. jroosh says:

    Just from a common sense standpoint, it strikes me as assinine to suggest that the death penalty has ever deterred a single crime. Whether it’s a passion killing or a tactfully thought-out homicide committed by a psychopath, do we really believe that would-be killer would think twice upon the realization that, 15 years down the line, that needle full of poison in my arm is gonna sting?

    I have to agree and wanted to add that even though some of my Christian friends and mentors have made a convincing case that capital punishment has support in scripture, I have always had a hard time justifying killing a criminal, even if you can be 100% sure of his guilt and at the same time being pro-life.

  3. Jay Reding says:

    Just from a common sense standpoint, it strikes me as assinine to suggest that the death penalty has ever deterred a single crime. Whether it’s a passion killing or a tactfully thought-out homicide committed by a psychopath, do we really believe that would-be killer would think twice upon the realization that, 15 years down the line, that needle full of poison in my arm is gonna sting?

    Yes.

    If someone knows that there’s a chance that they could end up being killed for committing a crime, it makes sense that they would be less likely to commit that crime.

    And why is the homicide rate in nations without a death penalty not five times as high as the homicide rate in America, if we’re really to believe that the presence of the death penalty saves five innocent lives?

    Because other countries aren’t similar to America. An ethnically homogenous state isn’t going to have the same crime rate as an ethnically heterogenous one like the United States. The better comparison is between American states with and without the death penalty, and the authors of the recent studies found that there was a direct correlation between death penalty policies and murder rates.

    Death penalty shills have a long way to go before they’re able to make hay out of data such as that presented above which completely and unequivocally defies common sense and statistical constitency with other nations that have no death penalty but lower homicide rates.

    They did, and they found that the death penalty does lower rates. And given that the authors of these studies hardly qualify as “shills” your typically overheated rhetoric doesn’t change the reality of their findings.

    The death penalty does deter crime — the question then becomes whether the price of that deterrence is too high for society as a whole.

  4. Mark says:

    “If someone knows that there’s a chance that they could end up being killed for committing a crime, it makes sense that they would be less likely to commit that crime.”

    No it doesn’t. Not in that context.

    “An ethnically homogenous state isn’t going to have the same crime rate as an ethnically heterogenous one like the United States.”

    Are there any of these left? Mohammed is now the most common name for children in Britain.

    “The death penalty does deter crime”

    The evidence of that is far from clear. I’d like to see some of these people actually come forward that decided not to squeeze the trigger because they pontificated an unsavory date with a poison-tipped needle more than a decade into the future.

  5. zzx375 says:

    I always liked the comment supplied by Jay Leno a few years back on the issue of “making the death penalty tougher” which was to place a tack on the seat of the electric chair.

  6. Thomas Jackson says:

    It always strikes me that the no death penalty shills try to compare the US to other nations to compare and contrast the death penalty and murder rates. As if Japan, Burma, Argentina had any basis for comparison. What is interesting is to note that in nations where the death penalty was eliminated that the murder rates have moved upwards as they have in other socities such as Italy. I guess there is no correlation right?

    It also amazes me to see that in the USA once the murder penalty was reinstituted following the idoitic Supreme Courts attempt to do away with it that murder rates went down once executions started again. Its clear that where a quick eecution follows there is no question of deterence. However due to the bleeding hearts we have too many cases like John Gracy who outlived the members of his jury before he went to the infernal. As far as executing innocents, anyone who has been on a jury realizes that people accused of murder are generally chorboys, scoutmasters and ministers. I would really, really like to hear about one innocent person who was executed in the past 20 years. On the other hand we have over 20,000 innocent victims of these choirboys, etc.

    The idea tht we should not have the death penalty because of the possibility of exectuing an innocent person is about as rational as eliminating prison for rapists because we might convict an innocent man. Show me an individual who has lost a loved one to a murderer and I’ll show you someone who wants to pull the switch regardless of how he felt before the murder.

  7. Mark says:

    “What is interesting is to note that in nations where the death penalty was eliminated that the murder rates have moved upwards as they have in other socities such as Italy. I guess there is no correlation right?”

    Bottom line: the highest homicide rate in the civilized world is in the United States….the only nation in the civilized world with a death penalty. If we’re really supposed to believe that four lives are saved for every life taken due to the “deterrence” factor of the death penalty (which no sane person would ever extrapolate), then we’re in serious need of reform elsewhere in our society if the most violent nation in the civilized world is saved from being 400% more violent only because so many would-be cold-blooded killers can’t go through with pulling the trigger because of fear of lethal injection.

    “As far as executing innocents, anyone who has been on a jury realizes that people accused of murder are generally chorboys, scoutmasters and ministers. I would really, really like to hear about one innocent person who was executed in the past 20 years.”

    Ah, so if they stole the hubcaps off of your Hummer when they were 18, that stigma should convince a jury to put them to death at age 33 even if that pesky evidence isn’t quite conclusive? I’m sure the founding fathers are spinning in their graves. If a single person is put to death for a crime they didn’t commit, then the entire practice of a “death penalty” is an equivocal failure both tactically and ethically. Period.

    “Show me an individual who has lost a loved one to a murderer and I’ll show you someone who wants to pull the switch regardless of how he felt before the murder.”

    Civilized societies resolve problems of lawbreakers through a system of courts and laws for a reason….to prevent the sort of “vigilante posse” mentality that arises when the hot emotional appeals of victims are treated with more legal weight than they’re worth. Civilized societies deal with those who break their laws through civilized means. They don’t embrace the “eye for an eye” vengeance bloodlust practiced by savages.

  8. Eracus says:

    “Bottom line: the highest homicide rate in the civilized world is in the United States….the only nation in the civilized world with a death penalty.”

    That’s just bunk. Japan has the death penalty, as do dozens of other civilized nations. Meanwhile, the United States homicide rate per capita is 24th in the world, though some of the countries admitting to a higer rate would not be considered “civilized,” given that even Japan fails to meet your standard of a “civilized” society.

  9. Mark says:

    Eracus, I managed to find the source for your statistic that the United States ranks 24th in the world in homicide rate. What you neglected to mention were the nations that ranked 1-23, which in descending order, include Colombia, South Africa, Jamaica, Venezuela, Russia, Mexico, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Papua New Guinea, Kyrzygystan, Thailand, Moldova, Zimbabwe, Seychelles, Zambia, Costa Rica, Poland, Georgia, Uruguay, and Bulgaria. Of all 23 of those countries, Poland probably comes closest to qualifying as a “civilized” society. Perhaps we should incorporate this list into our tourism advertising abroad: “Visit America. It’s safer than Kyrzygystan!”

    To your credit, I stand corrected about the death penalty in Japan.

  10. Eracus says:

    Another thing to remember, Mark, is that how the United States defines homicide is not necessarily how other nations define it. And then there are all those political inconsistencies in what, how, and why records are kept at all, and by whom.

    Meanwhile, it is a certainty that the good people of Colombia, South Africa, Jamaica, Venezuela, Russia, Mexico, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Papua New Guinea, Kyrzygystan, Thailand, Moldova, Zimbabwe, Seychelles, Zambia, Costa Rica, Georgia, Uruguay, and Bulgaria would all dispute your arrogant, condescending, typical liberal assertion that only Poland comes closest to qualifying as a “civilized” society.

    Maybe you mean “modern” society according to your own western standards and limited worldview, but isn’t such a comparison just a tad racist? Are the citizens of Bangkok not civilized? Moscow? Pretoria? Are there nothing but savages living in Costa Rica??

  11. Mark says:

    Eracus, would the term “industrialized” nation better suit your political correctness requirement?

  12. Eracus says:

    Such terms are just semantics, Mark. The larger issue is why are you so willing and quick to condemn your own country as having “the highest homicide rate in the civilized world” when it simply is not true? Why are you so reflexively anti-American that you are willing to use false statements to condemn your own people? Who taught you to think this way?

  13. Mark says:

    Perhaps the same cabal of evildoers that taught you to think your state and local leaders are conspiring to keep your road unpaved and burning down the ice houses of local Republicans. Why are you so reflexively anti-Minnesota and reflexively anti-Bemidji? As you say, semantics is everything.

  14. Eracus says:

    You’re dodging the question, I submit, because you really just don’t know the answer.

    And I would not be living here if I were anti-Minnesota or anti-Bemidji. I am just not a Marxist-Leninist, whereas the DFLers in Minnesota and especially Beltrami County are, though most refer to themselves as “national socialists” without the slightest hint of irony. Ignorance is bliss.