Argument: Capital punishment has a deterrent effect on criminal activities

Issue Report: Death penalty


NY Governor George Pataki.”Death Penalty is a Deterrent”. USA Today. March, 1997 – Capital punishment gives killers good cause to fear arrest and conviction.

Hashem Dezhbakhsh (Emory University Law Professor) and Joan M Shepard Shepherd (Assistant Professor at Emory School of Law). “The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Evidence from a ‘Judicial Experiment'”. January 11th, 2006 – We use panel data for 50 states during the 1960-2000 period to examine the deterrent effect of capital punishment, using the moratorium as a ‘judicial experiment.’ We compare murder rates immediately before and after changes in states’ death penalty laws, drawing on cross-state variations in the timing and duration of the moratorium. The regression analysis supplementing the before-and-after comparisons disentangles the effect of lifting the moratorium on murder from the effect of actual executions on murder. Results suggest that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, and that executions have a distinct effect which compounds the deterrent effect of merely (re)instating the death penalty. The finding is robust across 96 regression models.

Hashem Dezhbaksh, Emory Law. “Does Capital Punishment Have a Deterrent Effect? New Evidence from Postmoratorium Panel Data”. 2003 – Our results suggest that capital punishment has a strong deterrent effect; each execution results, on average, in eighteen fewer murders—with a margin of error of plus or minus ten.

Isaac Ehrlich, “Capital Punishment and Deterrence: Some Further Thoughts and Additional Evidence”, the Journal of Political Economy, 1977 – “Investigation of the deterrent effect of capital punishment has implications far beyond the propriety of execution as punishment since it concerns the general question of offenders’ responsiveness to incentives. This study challenges popular allegations by earlier researchers denying the deterrence hypothesis. The empirical analysis based on cross-sectional data from the U.S. corroborates my earlier analysis of the time series. Findings indicate a substantial deterrent effect of punishment on murder and related violent crimes and support the economic and econometric models used in investigations of other crimes.”

Joanna Shepard, Emory University Law Professor. “Capital Punishment and the Deterrence of Crime”, written testimony for the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. 21 Apr. 2004 – “Recent research on the relationship between capital punishment and crime has created a strong consensus among economists that capital punishment deters crime. Early studies from the 1970s and 1980s reached conflicting results. However, recent studies have exploited better data and more sophisticated statistical techniques. The modern studies have consistently shown that capital punishment has a strong deterrent effect, with each execution deterring between 3 and 18 murders. This is true even for crimes that might seem not to be deterrable, such as crimes of passion.”

John McAdams, Marquette University Department of Political Science. “On deterrence”. 2007 – 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.”

Simon Heffer. “The case for capital punishment”. 23 Nov. 2005 – We waltzed into a plenary session about the need to curb serious crime – murder, rape, armed robbery, drugs trafficking, all those little things that make life in our inner cities so vibrant today. When I uttered the fact – not at that stage reinforced by an expression of opinion, but simply a fact – that the murder rate had quadrupled since the abolition of capital punishment, an embarrassed silence permeated the room. It was as if my personal hygiene had suddenly taken a turn very much for the worse.

Afterwards, however, I was approached by a meek, mild little gentleman, who turned out to be a Professor of Ethics at one of America’s leading universities, and an adviser retained by the police departments of several major cities. He wanted to apologise to me for not having spoken up in my support, but explained that he had felt intimidated by the weight of liberal opinion engulfing us.

As we shook hands and I urged him not to be concerned, he told me a story. ‘Of course capital punishment works. In China recently they had a drug problem. One day, they took out 6,000 drug dealers and shot them in the back of the head. The result: they don’t now have a drug problem.’

Now before you reach for your pens or your computer keyboards, I should clarify that I am not advocating the mass slaughter of criminals in this country, agreeable though that might be to many people. We are not a repressive or barbaric state, at least not yet. The rule of law suggests that we do things more moderately here: but many would, equally, say too moderately.

Pro Death Penalty Webpage – During the temporary suspension on capital punishment from 1972-1976, researchers gathered murder statistics across the country. In 1960, there were 56 executions in the USA and 9,140 murders. By 1964, when there were only 15 executions, the number of murders had risen to 9,250. In 1969, there were no executions and 14,590 murders, and 1975, after six more years without executions, 20,510 murders occurred rising to 23,040 in 1980 after only two executions since 1976. In summary, between 1965 and 1980, the number of annual murders in the United States skyrocketed from 9,960 to 23,040, a 131 percent increase. The murder rate — homicides per 100,000 persons — doubled from 5.1 to 10.2. So the number of murders grew as the number of executions shrank.

…The most striking protection of innocent life has been seen in Texas, which executes more murderers than any other state. According to JFA (Justice for All), the Texas murder rate in 1991 was 15.3 per 100,000. By 1999, it had fallen to 6.1 — a drop of 60 percent. Within Texas, the most aggressive death penalty prosecutions are in Harris County (the Houston area). Since the resumption of executions in 1982, the annual number of Harris County murders has plummeted from 701 to 241 — a 72 percent decrease.

Researcher Karl Spence of Texas A&M University – While some [death penalty] abolitionists try to face down the results of their disastrous experiment and still argue to the contrary, the…[data] concludes that a substantial deterrent effect has been observed…In six months, more Americans are murdered than have killed by execution in this entire century…Until we begin to fight crime in earnest [by using the death penalty], every person who dies at a criminal’s hands is a victim of our inaction.[1]