Use of the Death Penalty as a DeterrentThesis

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Death Penalty

When it comes to the death penalty, the United States is anything but consistent. Although at most times it does lean toward capital punishment, there are other times in its history when the trend goes the other way. Overall, the annual number of death sentences has dropped by about 60% since the 1990s, when it was close to 300 (Death Penalty Information Center, 2008). Even though polls are not empirical research, Americans continue to see death as the necessary punishment for some crimes. The last Gallup Poll in October of 2008 found support for capital punishment was 64%, a decline from the 69% support in 2007, and down considerably from 1994 when it was 80%. In fact, last year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stevens called the death penalty "the pointless and needless extinction of life." He declared he no longer believes the death penalty is constitutional. As for whether or not the death penalty is a deterrent, is just as inconsistent. Those who believe or do not believe it is a deterrent can point to studies that support their claim. It comes down to a "He said, She said" situation. As Del. Donald B. Elliott (R) questioned last year: "Why are we studying this again?" (Olson & Dechter, 2008). Researchers continue to study the impact and the results continually remain inconsistent. It is up to each person to determine what to believe or not to believe.

One of the first decisive research that came out in favor of the death penalty was conducted in 1975 by Ehrlich. He concluded that executions do prevent murders. Hood (2002) found that data collected from 1973 to 1984 found murder rates in the states not having the death penalty were consistently lower and averaged at 63% of the corresponding rates in the states retaining it

Thorston Sellin (1959) was one of the earliest researchers, comparing abolitionist and retentionist states and found that that homicide numbers in the former were not significantly different than the latter and concluded that executions do not have a significant impact on homicide death rates.

Researchers have also studied the impact of the death penalty by analyzing one state and comparing what happened when it did and did not have capital punishment. For example, in 1999, Sorensen et. al. tested the deterrence hypothesis in Texas, which has the greatest numbers of executions in the U.S. The authors looked at results from 1984 to 1997 when there was and was not the death penalty and found that "Within a context so ideally suited for finding any potential deterrent effects, this study confirmed the results of previous ones that failed to find any evidence of deterrence resulting from capital punishment" (Sorensen et al., 1999, p. 483).

Mocan and Gittings (2003) once again found contrary results. They merged a state-level panel data set that included crime and deterrence measures and state characteristics with information on all death sentences handed out in the between1977 and 1997. Since the specific month and year of each execution and removal from death row could be determined, they were matched with state-level criminal activity in the relevant time frame. The authors investigated the rate of homicide based on the rates of impact of the execution, commutation and removal, homicide arrest, sentencing, imprisonment, and prison deaths. The results showed that each added execution lowered homicides by approximately five, and each additional commutation raised homicides about the same amount, while an added removal from death row lead to one additional murder.

In a similar vein, Dezhbakhsh and Shepherd (2003) looked at data for 50 states during the 1960 to 2000 period and compared murder rates immediately prior to and after changes in state death penalty laws. With this research, they found the opposite results of the most recent studies, or: "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" (p. 319).

Berk (2005) negated studies such as those by Dezhbakhsh and Shepherd saying that numerous papers have appeared claiming to show that the executions deter serious crime. However, there are many statistical problems with the data analyses reported. He addressed the problem of "influence," which occurs when a very small and atypical fraction of the data dominate the statistical results. In this case the number of executions by state and year is the major explanatory variable, and most states in most years do not execute anyone. Very few states in particular years execute more than five prisoners. This only represents about 1% of the available observations.

Shepherd (2005) used a large data set of all U.S. counties from 1977 to 1996 to examine whether capital punishment's effect on murder rates differed among states. She found that "of the 27 states in which at least one execution occurred during the sample period, capital punishment deters murder in only 6 states" (p. 203). To the contrary, in 13 states, capital punishment in fact increased murder and in eight states, it had no effect.

In only 22% of states did executions have a deterrent effect. However, at the same time, executions had induced additional murders in 48% of the states and created no deterrence in 78% of the states. In other words, the findings were completely mixed.

In addition, Shepherd's (2005) paper examined the threshold effect to better understand why a handful of states indicated a deterrence effect, but many do not. Why do such inconsistencies exist? She stated that "On average, the states where capital punishment deters murder execute many more people than do the states where capital punishment does not deter murder" (p. 208). In states that carried out more executions than the threshold, each of these executions, on average, deterred the incidence of murder. However, in those states that performed less executions than the threshold, these executions increased the rate of the murders. Perhaps if a state executes many people, there is greater credibility that the state is serious about its role with the death penalty and it causes a deterrence.

Given the inconsistencies with this area of research, Keckler (2006) decided to look at it from another angle. He noted that most researchers on both sides of the death penalty continually rely on simple assumptions about criminal behavior. Instead, he "examined whether it is plausible to suppose there is a marginal increase in deterrence created by increasing the penalty from life imprisonment without parole to capital punishment" (p. 101). He said there is a subset of killers who are relatively unafraid of being in prison, and who may thus be deterred effectively solely by the death penalty. Empirically, criminals seem to fear a capital sentence, and are seen to do what they can to avoid this risk by plea bargaining. Thus, at least for some offenders, the death penalty should result in being more cautious in using lethal violence, and the deterrent effect that is seen statistically is possibly derived from the change in the behavior of these individuals.

Zimmerman (2006) relied on state-level data throughout the years of 1978 to 2000 to determine whether the way in which death penalty states conducted their executions impacted the per-capita incidence of murder. He analyzed a variety of different measures in regard to the subjective plausibility of execution and considered the specific execution timing. He concluded that "the deterrent effect of capital punishment is driven primarily by executions conducted by electrocution. However, not one of the other four methods of execution, lethal injection, gas chamber asphyxiation, hanging, and/or firing squad, have been found to have a statistically significant impact on the per capita incidence of murder" (p. 920)

These results, noted Zimmerman (2006), suggest using lethal injection instead of electrocution (or lethal gas) in a number of death penalty states may not be a desirable decision if lawmakers want to use capital punishment to deter crime. Recognizing that there are other reasons for using the death penalty than deterring crime, he added: "Of course, to the extent that deterrence is not a primary policy option but rather notions of retribution or simple 'incapacitation' (in the sense that an executed offender obviously cannot commit future crimes), the movement towards lethal injection as a sole method of execution might be more justifiable" (p. 924).

Even the U.S. Supreme Court is trying to find some middle ground on the use of injections. Last year, it did uphold the three drug lethal injection method of capital punishment used in Kentucky and other states. However, it rejected the expansion of the death penalty to non-homicide offenses in Kennedy v. Louisiana. The defendant, Patrick Kennedy, was convicted of raping his stepdaughter and sentenced to death under the 1995 Louisiana law that had widened the death penalty. When the Court agreed to hear the case, Alabama, Missouri, Colorado, Mississippi, and Tennessee gave thought to expanding the death penalty to include the crime of child rape, but none of those bills were passed. In striking down the law, the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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