Thesis: Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder?

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¶ … Criminal justice [...] whether capital punishment deters murder or not. Capital punishment is said to be a deterrent to crime and murder, but is it really? While many studies have shown that capital punishment is a deterrent to murder, there are a growing body of researchers that believe that is not the case, and that capital punishment does not deter murder at all. In fact, many studies indicate that since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1977, murder rates have actually gone up, and reports citing deterrence because of the death penalty are skewed, at best.

Comparative research studies indicate that capital punishment is not a deterrent for murder; in fact, it does not deter murder at all. One researcher notes, "Study after study consistently has shown that the death penalty does not measurably deter murder; it provides no incremental deterrent effect above the alternative of life imprisonment" (Haney, 2005, p. 82). Two authors cite two studies that proponents of capital punishment often cite as proof the death penalty acts as a deterrent. They write, "A subsequent re-analysis by Peter Passell and John Taylor showed that Ehrlich's estimates were entirely driven by attributing a sharp jump in murders from 1963-69 to the post-1962 drop in executions. But the mid-1960s decline in homicide occurred across all states -- including those that had never had the death penalty" (Donohue & Wolfers, 2006, p. 2). They go on to illustrate the flaws in a report by Dezhbakhsh, Rubin, and Shepherd (DRS), that also indicate that capital punishment is a deterrent to murder. They show why the DRS data is flawed, and how they manipulated the instruments DRS used to skew the numbers from one end of the spectrum to the other. They write of their recalculations, "Murders would have plummeted in death penalty states compared to non-death penalty states, or in the United States, compared with non-executing Canada" (Donohue & Wolfers, 2006, p 3). Their final conclusion is that execution rates have varied so little in the last 30 years, that little can be drawn from these rates.

The data from the U.S. Department of Justice seems to back this idea up. In 2008 (the last year where figures are available), 37 inmates were executed, and that is down five from 2007. In addition, in 2007, there were 3,220 prisoners in the United States on death row, and that is down 13 from the previous year, and the number of prisoners on death row has decreased every year for the past six years (Editors, 2009). The most startling statistic may be the population's propensity to violence. The editors at the DOJ Web site note, "Among inmates under sentence of death and with available criminal histories at yearend 2007: nearly 2 in 3 had a prior felony conviction, and 1 in 12 had a prior homicide conviction" (Editors, 2009). The death penalty and incarceration in general is not a deterrent to murder, because many of these criminals have killed before and punishment simply did not deter them from doing it again.

Comparative research also indicates that criminals do not think about the death penalty when they commit crimes. Authors Sunstein & Vermeule, two death penalty researchers note, "Emphasizing the weakness of the deterrent signal, Steven Levitt has suggested that 'it is hard to believe that fear of execution would be a driving force in a rational criminal's calculus in modern America'" (Sunstein & Vermeule, 2005). Relating to that, violent crimes, such as homicide, are on the decline, but many studies indicate that a large portion of violent crimes are committed as "crimes of passion" rather than premeditated, and these types of crimes will rarely be affected by fear of the death penalty. Instead, they occur quickly and without thought, and without the criminal giving any thought to right, wrong, or future punishment. Another writer notes, "Many violent people -- particularly violent adolescents -- resort to violence toward others only as an alternative to suicide and, in many cases, kill themselves anyway after killing others. Capital punishment wouldn't be a deterrent to them" (Grant, 2004). This is certainly the case with the many violent shootings that have occurred in just the last two months, none of these people was worried about death, but they were certainly motivated to kill, and take their own lives in the end.

On reason that capital punishment is generally seen as a deterrent to crime is that many legal representatives and judges tout their support of the death penalty through the media and their own "research." As researcher Haney notes, "Nonetheless, the attorney general's 'Special Report to the People' told Californians: [T] he death penalty has been essentially nullified by the California Supreme Court even though it is considered to be the singularly most effective deterrent to murder available" (Haney, 2005, p. 82). In fact, if the public did their own research, they would discover this is not the case.

Another argument for the death penalty that is quite popular with the public is that implementing the death penalty is cheaper than leaving a criminal incarcerated for a life sentence. However, studies also indicate this is not the case. Author Haney continues, "Indeed, virtually every study done on this issue has concluded that the costs of the death penalty exceed those of life imprisonment, and often by very substantial amounts" (Haney, 2005, p. 84). The evidence indicates that a majority of people believe this, even though the opposite is true. Haney states, "Yet a majority of our respondents (54%) endorsed the view that the death penalty was less expensive than life in prison. This compared to only 26% who believed the reverse, correct view-that the death penalty was, in fact, more expensive than life imprisonment to administer" (Haney, 2005, p. 84). People's judgments often cloud the reality and make it difficult to get the realities of capital punishment across in the media and in the judicial system.

Research also shows that much of the evidence used in death penalty studies can be skewed by the results of one state. Texas executes more prisoners than any other state. Researchers Sunstein and Vermeule found that one study was discredited for saying capital punishment is a deterrent because it based its evidence on data that included Texas for the final results. They found when the Texas data was removed from the remaining results, no deterrent was evident (Sunstein & Vermeule, 2005).

It is important to remember that between 1972 and 1977, capital punishment was outlawed in the United States. The Supreme Court ruled that life imprisonment was an equal or better deterrent to murder. Another writer notes, "The Court also found that excessive punishments are prohibited and concluded that, since life imprisonment is as effective a deterrent as execution, capital punishment was excessive" (Grant, 2004). Author Grant believes a better deterrent would be more thorough police detection and patrol, since only about 45% of killers are ever prosecuted (Grant, 2004). During the time when capital punishment was outlawed, murder rates rose dramatically, and proponents point to that as a reason to reinstall capital punishment. However, statistics show that murder rates around the world shot up during the same period, even in countries that had capital punishment.

There was a time when the death penalty and its use was a social deterrent to crime. In earlier centuries, when prisons were not nearly as secure and safe as they are today, the death penalty and public executions did help deter crime. Capital punishment, however, is no longer a public spectacle, and it is no longer a deterrent, as modern murder rates indicate. Author Haney states, "Whatever effective approaches remain to be implemented to reduce violent crime, there is no evidence that the death penalty is one of them. In short, the most rational justifications- societal protection and deterrence-no longer obtain" (Haney, 2005, p. 244). Haney's evidence is not based solely on his opinion. He uses empirical research throughout his book to back up his claims, including time-series analysis such as this comparison between earlier centuries and today.

Two other authors cite another time-series analysis undertaken by researcher Joanna Shepherd in the early 21st century indicates the death penalty is not a deterrent in most states where it is used. They write, "Disaggregating the data on a state-by-state basis, Joanna Shepherd finds that the nationwide deterrent effect of capital punishment is entirely driven by only six states -- and that no deterrent effect can be found in the twenty-one other states that have restored capital punishment" (Sunstein & Vermeule, 2005). In addition, Shepherd's study found that deterrence only occurred in states that executed more than nine inmates in a year, and it did not occur in states that execute fewer inmates (Sustein & Vermeule, 2005). The reason for this statistic may be related to the fact that criminals in states that seldom execute prisoners may find it improbable that they will ever actually face the death penalty.

In another time-series analysis, authors Donohue… [END OF PREVIEW]

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