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EDITORIALS: The Myth of Deterrence

In a recent editorial entitled "The Myth of Deterrence," the Dallas Morning News pointed to the many reasons why the death penalty does not deter murders: a majority of murders can be classified as irrational acts, and the perpetrators are unlikely to have considered the possibility of a death sentences before and during the crime; those who commit premeditated murder are also unlikely to consider the possibility of capital punishment because it is so unlikely to be carried out. "No rational criminal should be deterred by the death penalty, since the punishment is too distant and too unlikely to merit much attention," the News writes, quoting economist and "Freakonomics" author Steven Levitt.

According to the News, the arguments that the death penalty deters murder do not hold up to scrutiny. States in the South have a higher homicide rate than all other regions of the United States, and they also have higher numbers of death sentences and executions. The News asks, “If capital punishment were an effective deterrent to homicide, shouldn't we expect the opposite result?” Recent studies claiming the death penalty deters numerous murders have also found to be “fatally flawed.”


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New York City Homicide Rate Drops to Lowest Point in 40 Years

If current trends continue, New York City will likely have fewer than 500 homicides this year, the lowest number in a 12-month period since reliable NYC Police Department statistics became available in 1963. As of November 18, 2007, the police department logged 428 killings, the majority of which were committed by friends or acquaintances or were drug or gang-related. In fact, only 35 homicides this year were committed by strangers to the victims, a number described as "microscopic" in a city of 8.2 million.

Thomas Reppetto, a police historian, noted: "Not only has the N.Y.P.D. reduced murder, by nearly 80%, but it has changed the pattern of homicides." In 1990, New York recorded its highest number of murders at 2,245, with many of the victims being killed by strangers. Of the 412 murders this year, many assailants and victims had previous arrests for narcotics. Overall, crime rates in New York City are down 6.47%.


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NEW RESOURCES: Flaws in Recent Deterrence Studies

In a recent article in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Dr. Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia University describes numerous serious errors in recent deterrence studies, including improper statistical analyses and missing data and variables that are necessary to give a full picture of the criminal justice system. Fagan writes, “There is no reliable, scientifically sound evidence that [shows that executions] can exert a deterrent effect…. These flaws and omissions in a body of scientific evidence render it unreliable as a basis for law or policy that generate life-and-death decisions. To accept it uncritically invites errors that have the most severe human costs.”

Since the landmark Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia in 1972, dozens of studies have been performed to determine whether future murderers are deterred by the death penalty. In the past five years, Fagan writes, a “new wave” of studies has emerged, claiming that each execution prevents 3-32 murders, depending on the study. Some of these studies tie pardons, commutations, exonerations, and even irrational murders of passion to increases in murder rates.


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CAUSES OF VIOLENCE: Experts Indicate Crime Can Rise When Funds are Diverted From Police to War and Terrorism

Funds for community policing programs have been significantly slashed in recent years, a development that experts link to the government's new focus on fighting terrorism. The U.S. Department of Justice provided $7 billion in federal funds for community policing programs between 1994 and 2001, but it has awarded only $208 million for local departments this year. "Many of those funds have been shifted to homeland security, which also is very important in this day and age," said University of Nevada criminologist William Sousa. "I think, though, in shifting those funds, people fail to realize that . . . [a] lot of terrorism goes on that's homegrown," he said, pointing to drug crime.

Many cities have had significant drops in the amount of federal funds they receive for programs such as putting more police officers on the streets and purchasing equipment designed to improve law enforcement's efficiency, and have had rises in crime. In Philadelphia, funding cuts have reduced the city's police force from 7,000 in the 1990s to 6,500 today. That city had 406 homicides in 2006, a 10-year high, and could exceed that number in 2007. In Camden, New Jersey, the number of uniformed officers has also dropped and only 20 of the department's 170 police cruisers are equipped with computers. Camden has had 31 homicides this year and is likely to surpass the 33 murders recorded in 2006. Camden's police executive, Arturo Venegas, observed, "Our capacity for responding and deploying intelligently as to what's occurring in the community -- that is diminished. It's easier to finance infrastructure in Baghdad than it is to finance infrastructure in Philadelphia or Camden, New Jersey." Venegas added that federal funds once allocated to train community leaders how to collaborate with local police were "the best tool for ensuring homeland security."

Though violent crime in most cities is yet to reach the levels of the early 1990s and continues to fall in some places, law enforcement officials warn that rising crime rates in some cities are a growing threat that must be addressed.


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Experts Explain Why the Death Penalty Does Not Deter Murder

Following the release of a new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health concerning the failure of deterrence in drug use, medical experts commented that deterrence also fails in the area of capital punishment. "It is very clear that deterrents are not effective in the area of capital punishment," said Dr. Jonathan Groner, an associate professor of surgery at Ohio State University College of Medicine and Public Health who researches the deterrent effect of capital punishment. "The psychological mind-set of the criminal is such that they are not able to consider consequences at the time of the crime. Most crimes are crimes of passion that are done in situations involving intense excitement or concern. People who commit these crimes are not in a normal state of mind -- they do not consider the consequences in a logical way," Groner observed.  Deterrents may work in instances where the punishment is obvious and immediate, neither of which are true for the death penalty.

Experts suggest that criminal behavior and the nation's murder rate may best be curbed by addressing the environmental and social factors that contribute to violent crime. Groner explains, "The murder rate is most closely associated with the socioeconomic health of the country. The murder rate in the U.S. was highest during the Depression. Also, the majority of people on death row are from the most blighted parts of the U.S. They are very poor and very impoverished. A very high percentage have mental health problems. Good access to health care and improving the socioeconomic health of our country's cities would reduce the murder rate more effectively than executions." Dr. Carlyle Chan, a professor of professional development at the Medical College of Wisconsin, adds that many people believe they can cheat the system and get away with their illegal behaviors, which lessens the deterrent impact of a specific punishment.

The youth-study's author, Dr. Diane Elliot, is a professor of medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University. She examined the deterrent impact of random drug testing in high school athletes.
(ABC News, October 22, 2007). See Deterrence and Studies.


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RESOURCES: New FBI Report Shows U.S. Murder Rate Unchanged Since 1999

The FBI’s recently released Uniform Crime Reports: Crime in the United States, 2006, revealed that the murder rate in 2006 rose slightly from 5.6 murders per 100,000 people in 2005 to 5.7 in 2006, but was at the same rate as in 1999 when use of the death penalty started to show marked declines. There has been little change in the murder rate in the intervening years when death sentences, executions, and the size of death row all declined.

As in previous years, the South had the highest murder rate in 2006 (6.8 per 100,000 people) among the four geographical regions. This represents a 3% increase from 2005 and was the largest increase among the four regions. Over 80% of the executions in the country have occurred in the South since the death penalty was reinstated. The Northeast had the lowest murder rate, 4.5 per 100,000 people. Less than 1% of the executions in the country have occurred in the Northeast.  Louisiana had the highest murder rate (12.4) and New Hampshire had the lowest (1.0).


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Discussion of Recent Deterrence Studies

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has collected many recent deterrence studies, including ones by Hashem Dezhbakhsh, Paul H. Rubin, Joanna M. Shepherd, H. Naci Mocan & R. Kaj Gittings and others claiming a deterrent effect to the death penalty. These studies may be found here. The following are academic critques of this new research:

A report released on April 18, 2012, by the prestigious National Research Council of the National Academies based on a review of more than three decades of research concluded that studies claiming a deterrent effect on murder rates from the death penalty are fundamentally flawed. The report concluded: “The committee concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates. Therefore, the committee recommends that these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide. Consequently, claims that research demonstrates that capital punishment decreases or increases the homicide rate by a specified amount or has no effect on the homicide rate should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment." (emphasis added).  Criminologist Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon, who chaired the panel of experts, said, “We recognize this conclusion will be controversial to some, but nobody is well served by unfounded claims about the death penalty. Nothing is known about how potential murderers actually perceive their risk of punishment."

The report found three fundamental flaws with existing studies on deterrence:

  • The studies do not factor in the effects of noncapital punishments that may also be imposed.
  • The studies use incomplete or implausible models of potential murderers’ perceptions of and response to the use of capital punishment.
  • Estimates of the effect of capital punishment are based on statistical models that make assumptions that are not credible.

(D. Nagin and J. Pepper, "Deterrence and the Death Penalty," Committee on Law and Justice at the National Research Council, April 2012; D. Vergano, "NRC: Death penalty effect research 'fundamentally flawed'," USA Today, April 18, 2012).  Read the NRC's Report Brief (4 pages).

Death and Deterrence Redux: Science, Law and Causal Reasoning on Capital Punishment: In an article in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Dr. Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia University describes numerous serious errors in recent deterrence studies, including improper statistical analyses and missing data and variables that are necessary to give a full picture of the criminal justice system. Fagan writes, “There is no reliable, scientifically sound evidence that [shows that executions] can exert a deterrent effect…. These flaws and omissions in a body of scientific evidence render it unreliable as a basis for law or policy that generate life-and-death decisions. To accept it uncritically invites errors that have the most severe human costs.” Since the landmark Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia in 1972, dozens of studies have been performed to determine whether future murderers are deterred by the death penalty. In the past five years, Fagan writes, a “new wave” of studies has emerged, claiming that each execution prevents 3-32 murders, depending on the study. Some of these studies tie pardons, commutations, exonerations, and even irrational murders of passion to increases in murder rates. While many of these studies have appeared in academic journals, they have been given an uncritical and favorable reception in leading newspapers. Fagan takes issue with this lack of serious and adequate peer review by fellow researchers. He analyzed this research and found that "this work fails the tests of rigorous replication and robustness analysis that are the hallmarks of good science."(4 Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 255 (2006))

The Death Penalty: No Evidence for Deterrence: In an article entitled The Death Penalty: No Evidence for Deterrence, John Donnohue and Justin Wolfers examined recent statistical studies that claimed to show a deterrent effect from the death penalty. The authors conclude that the estimates claiming that the death penalty saves numerous lives "are simply not credible." In fact, the authors state that using the same data and proper methodology could lead to the exact opposite conclusion: that is, that the death penalty actually increases the number of murders. The authors state: "We show that with the most minor tweaking of the [research] instruments, one can get estimates ranging from 429 lives saved per execution to 86 lives lost. These numbers are outside the bounds of credibility." (The Economists' Voice, April 2006).

The Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate: A new edition of the Stanford Law Review contains an article entitled Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate. The article examines and performs comparison tests on recent studies that have claimed a deterrent effect to the death penalty. Authors John J. Donohue of Yale Law School and Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania state their goal and conclusions: "Aggregating over all of our estimates, it is entirely unclear even whether the preponderance of evidence suggests that the death penalty causes more or less murder." (58 Stanford Law Review 791 (2005)).

The Death Penalty Meets Social Science: Deterrence and Jury Behavior Under New Scrutiny: Robert Weisberg, a professor at Stanford University's School of Law, examines recent studies on deterrence and the death penalty, as well as other social science research ragarding capital punishment in the U.S. In The Death Penalty Meets Social Science: Deterrence and Jury Behavior Under New Scrutiny, Weisberg notes that many of the new studies claiming to find that the death penalty deters murder have been legitimately criticized for omitting key variables and for not addressing the potential distorting effect of one high-executing state, Texas. Later in the article, Weisberg examines studies on race-of-victim discrimination and on capital jurors. This article will appear in the forthcoming edition of the Annual Review of Law and Social Science. (1 Annual Review of Law and Social Science 151 (2005)).

Public Policy Choices on Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Critical Review of New Evidence: In testimony before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on the Judiciary regarding proposed legislation to initiate a "foolproof" death penalty, Columbia Law School Professor Jeffrey Fagan analyzed recent studies that claimed that capital punishment deters murders. He stated that the studies "fall apart under close scrutiny." Fagan noted that the studies are fraught with technical and conceptual errors, including inappropriate methods of statistical analysis, failures to consider all relevant factors that drive murder rates, missing data on key variables in key states, weak to non-existent tests of concurrent effects of incarceration, and other deficiencies. "A close reading of the new deterrence studies shows quite clearly that they fail to touch this scientific bar, let alone cross it," Fagan said as he told members of the committee that the recent deterrence studies fell well short of the demanding standards of social science research. (J. Fagan, Public Policy Choices on Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Critical Review of New Evidence, testimony before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary of the Massachusetts Legislature on House Bill 3934, July 14, 2005).

New Claims about Executions and General Deterrence: Deja Vu All Over Again?: A study conducted by Professor Richard Berk of the UCLA Department of Statistics has identified significant statistical problems with the data analysis used to support recent studies claiming to show that executions deter crime in the United States. In "New Claims about Executions and General Deterrence: Deja Vu All Over Again?," Professor Berk addresses the problem of "influence," which occurs when a very small and atypical fraction of the available data dominates the statistical results of a study. He found that this statistical problem is found in a number of recent studies claiming to show that capital punishment deters violent crime. The UCLA study conducted by Berk found that in many instances the number of executions by state and year is the key explanatory variable used by researchers, despite the fact that many states in most years execute no one and few states in particular years execute more than five individuals. These values represent about 1% of the available observations that could have been used by researchers to draw conclusions for earlier studies claiming to find that capital punishment is a deterrent. In Professor Berk's study, a re-analysis of the existing data shows that claims of deterrence are a statistical artifact of this anomalous 1%. (Published on UCLA's Web site, July 19, 2004).

Return to Deterrence


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NEW VOICES: Law Enforcement Officer Says Death Penalty is Too Expensive and Does Not Deter Crime

Jim Davidsaver, a 20-year veteran with the Lincoln Police Department in Nebraska, recently wrote a column outlining his support for legislation that would have repealed the state's death penalty. Davidsaver said he supported the measure, which failed to pass into law, because the death penalty does not deter crime and is too expensive. He noted that in his years of service with the police force he witnessed many horrific crime scenes, but none of the accused murderers was ever deterred by the death penalty. He wrote:

As a career law enforcement officer, I considered myself an interested spectator as the Legislature debated the bill, LB476, sponsored by Sen. Ernie Chambers, that would have replaced the state's death penalty with mandatory life imprisonment without parole and allowed the victim’s family to seek restitution.


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