The Death Penalty Deterrence Myth

I have to explain this issue to my students over and over again (particularly the first years who are often quite right-wing before they start learning about the nuances of society).

The death penalty has no deterrent effect. Fact. It does not deter individuals from committing serious crime. There are many reasons why this is the case (lack of certainty of being caught, lack of certainty of punishment, slowness of the system etc.) but that is the bottom line.

Here’s some good news: it appears that 2010 saw violence drop sharply across the United States. Meanwhile, executions and death sentences continued to plummet. Is the death-penalty-as-deterrent argument losing more ground?

Last year saw the second-fewest death sentences in 25 years (with just two more sentences than the 2009 low), and some would argue this would spark a wave of murders among those discerning, thoughtful criminals who aren’t worried at all about life without parole but are scared shitless of the lethal injection. Instead, murders — along with all violent crime — continue to drop. The FBI’s numbers for the first half of 2010 show a 7 percent drop in killings against the same period in 2009, and all signs suggest that 2010 will be the fourth year in a row to see murders drop.

Academic studies have long struggled with the deterrent question, partly because it’s hard to measure drunken, murderous rage or premeditated killing in a laboratory setting. Criminologists tend to find no deterrent effect while studies by economists sometimes go the other direction. Without reliable laboratory studies, real-world statistics make a strong argument against the deterrent effect. If executions and murders continue their parallel drops in the years ahead, we’ll have solid proof that the deterrent argument is false.

88% of Criminologists Say Death Penalty is Not a Deterrent:

A study published this week in Northwestern’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that 88% of leading criminologists in the U.S. agree that the death penalty does not deter crime. Even more importantly, 75% of those polled said debates about the death penalty distract policymakers from working on policy reforms that have a real impact on crime and recidivism in this country.

This study, by sociology professors Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock, provides another sign that opinions are changing in the U.S., and it has the potential to play an important role in the ongoing debate around the issue. One aim of the study is to examine disagreement between criminologists (whose empirical studies have repeatedly found no sign of a deterrent effect in recent years) and economists (whose studies have found a deterrent effect).

A close examination of data from some of the economics studies, however, finds some gaps in the math. Radelet and Lacock then attempt to confirm their findings through a poll of leading criminologists - leading to the 88% number. I’d like to see a parallel poll of economists - to find if those publishing the studies finding a deterrent effect are outsiders in their field or if we have a dispute between disciplines, a math battle, if you will.

The result of this squabbling between academic camps is to leave the public confused, without solid research to stand on. Radelet and Lacock attempt to address this in their study, and it’s important work. Now, we’ll see what the economists say.

Download the full study here.