The Death Penalty Saves Lives?

"Those who object to capital punishment, and who do so in the name of protecting life, must come to terms with the possibility that the failure to inflict capital punishment will fail to protect life.” - Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago and Adrian Vermeule, a law professor at Harvard.

In the November 18, 2007 issue of the NY Times Adam Liptak raises the question: Does The Death Penalty Save Lives? This is a particularly timely question in view of the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has in essence suspended all executions in the United States until the question of death by lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment can be decided.

Paraphrasing Adam’s article he writes:

According to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives. For each inmate put to death 3 to 18 murders are prevented. The studies, performed by economists, compare the number of executions in different jurisdictions with homicide rates over time and say that murder rates tend to fall as executions rise. “I personally am opposed to the death penalty,” said H. Naci Mocan, an economist at Louisiana State University and an author of a study finding that each execution saves five lives. “But my research shows that there is a deterrent effect.”

The studies have been the subject of sharp criticism, much of it from legal scholars who say that the theories of economists do not apply to the violent world of crime and punishment. The death penalty “is applied so rarely that the number of homicides it can plausibly have caused or deterred cannot reliably be disentangled from the large year-to-year changes in the homicide rate caused by other factors,” John J. Donohue III, a law professor at Yale with a doctorate in economics, and Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the Stanford Law Review in 2005. “The existing evidence for deterrence,” they concluded, “is surprisingly fragile.”

“The evidence on whether it has a significant deterrent effect seems sufficiently plausible that the moral issue becomes a difficult one,” said
Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has frequently taken liberal positions. “I did shift from being against the death penalty to thinking that if it has a significant deterrent effect it’s probably justified.” Professor Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, a law professor at Harvard, wrote in their own Stanford Law Review article that “the recent evidence of a deterrent effect from capital punishment seems impressive, especially in light of its ‘apparent power and unanimity,’ ” quoting a conclusion of a separate overview of the evidence in 2005 by Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford, in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science. “Capital punishment may well save lives,” the two professors continued. “Those who object to capital punishment, and who do so in the name of protecting life, must come to terms with the possibility that the failure to inflict capital punishment will fail to protect life.”

To a large extent, the participants in the debate talk past one another because they work in different disciplines. “You have two parallel universes — economists and others,” said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment.” To economists, it is obvious that if the cost of an activity rises, the amount of the activity will drop. To many economists, then, it follows inexorably that there will be fewer murders as the likelihood of execution rises. “I am definitely against the death penalty on lots of different grounds,” said Joanna M. Shepherd, a law professor at Emory with a doctorate in economics who wrote or contributed to several studies. “But I do believe that people respond to incentives.”

But not everyone agrees that potential murderers know enough or can think clearly enough to make rational calculations. And the chances of being caught, convicted, sentenced to death and executed are in any event quite remote. Only about one in 300 homicides results in an execution. “I honestly think it’s a distraction,” Professor Wolfers said. “The debate here is over whether we kill 60 guys or not. The food stamps program is much more important.” There is also a classic economics question lurking in the background, Professor Wolfers said. “Capital punishment is very expensive,” he said, “so if you choose to spend money on capital punishment you are choosing not to spend it somewhere else, like policing.” A single capital litigation can cost more than $1 million. It is at least possible that devoting that money to crime prevention would prevent more murders than whatever number, if any, an execution would deter.

The available data is thin, mostly because there are so few executions. It seems unlikely,” Professor Donohue and Professor Wolfers concluded in their Stanford article, “that any study based only on recent U.S. data can find a reliable link between homicide and execution rates.” The two professors offered one particularly compelling comparison. Canada has executed no one since 1962. Yet the murder rates in the United States and Canada have moved in close parallel since then, including before, during and after the four-year death penalty moratorium in the United States in the 1970s.

“Deterrence cannot be achieved with a half-hearted execution program,” Professor Shepherd of Emory wrote in the
Michigan Law Review in 2005. She found a deterrent effect in only those states that executed at least nine people between 1977 and 1996. Professor Wolfers said the answer to the question of whether the death penalty deterred was “not unknowable in the abstract,” given enough data. “If I was allowed 1,000 executions and 1,000 exonerations, and I was allowed to do it in a random, focused way,” he said, “I could probably give you an answer.”

Is the death penalty a deterrent?

Posted November 18, 2007


Neil said...

I am in favor of capital punishment but not for the crimes where it is now imposed. Some of the articles referenced in the thread point out the economists’ position that if the risk/reward ratio is high enough behavior can be affected.

I would not impose the death penalty for crimes of passion as acting under ‘passion’ is not acting under ‘reason’.

For many of the crimes where the death penalty is imposed today the error level seems to be unacceptably high. I am disturbed by the number of capital cases that have been overturned by DNA evidence turned up later. Clearly the death penalty has been imposed on innocent persons which is clearly unacceptable.

Let’s apply the death penalty where it can be a deterrent. In my view that area lies with the highly intelligent and well-educated segment of our population. For example, if an individual manipulates the stock market by trading on insider information I think that the possibility he/she might be subject to the death penalty would have a tremendous affect on this type of behavior.

I think other possible areas are treason, government corruption, running an organized crime cartel etc.


Brian McKay said...

Here in the UK we have no death penalty and I don’t think that the murder rate has changed. We did have one wrong execution here when Timothy Evans was hanged for the murder of his child. Later bodies of prostitutes were found in a house lived in by a guy called Christie. He lived in the same house as Evans and I believed it was later found that he had killed Evans’ child. Christie was hanged.

In my opinion the trouble in Northern Ireland would have been brought to an end much sooner and with a huge saving in life had the death penalty been put into place for being in possession of a firearm or a bomb. Knowing that you will hang if you are stopped with a bomb or a gun in your vehicle would certainly concentrate the mind.

Now these thugs are into the illegal drug trade so maybe the penalties presently available are not strong enough to deter this behaviour.


Joan Ferguson said...


While I agree with you one has to realize that the death penalty is not going to be introduced in any of the Western societies for the crimes that you have mentioned.

Given that and also given that we agree applying the penalty to crimes of passion or crimes committed by the less intelligent and marginalized parts of our society is not a deterrent, perhaps the only rational course remaining is just to get rid of it altogether?


Neil said...

The other problem with the death penalty as it is practiced in the U.S.A. is the inordinate length of time it takes to execute someone. In some cases this can be in excess of 20 years.

I think that if one sentences someone to death one should not also in effect sentence that person to a 20 year jail sentence to be served first. Also, can we really believe that a person 20 years older is still the 'same' person who conducted the crime in the first place?