Is the Death Penalty a Deterrent to Future Crimes?
The most heinous of crimes are subject to the highest form of punishment – death penalty. Capital punishment has its share of supporters who believe in the merits of death penalty in fighting crime. On the other side of the coin are those who view the punishment as unconstitutional, barbaric, and just plain cruel. With the spate of mass shootings in the US, the issue of death penalty has had a resurgence in everyone’s consciousness. Many believe that the perpetrators deserve maximum penalty and the highest condemnation of all. This is clearly an emotional response, but it raises the question of whether death penalty is an effective way to deter prospective criminals. This essay aims to show two sides of the issue and argue that death penalty does not necessarily deter criminals from committing future crimes.
The main argument in support of death penalty is its perceived deterrent effect. In his study on deterrence in support of death penalty, van den Haag (1969) acknowledges that even though statistical results are inconclusive, capital punishment is likely to deter people from committing crimes because of fear of death, and more so if it is a death ordered by law. He states that death penalty permanently incapacitates the offender from committing future crimes. He highlights that it is the most feared form of punishment and because of its finality, it could deter prospective murderers who are not deterred by long-term imprisonment. He also puts more weight on saving the lives of prospective victims rather than preserving the lives of convicted murderers who may re-offend.
Decades after van den Haag’s study, Mocan and Gittings (2003) confirm that the death penalty has a deterrent effect. Based on their two controversial studies, they conclude that for each execution, five murders are prevented. Conversely, one commutation results in five murders. Further, Zimmerman’s (2004) research study using state-level data concludes that each execution results in 14 fewer murders. While statistics appear to strengthen the argument in favor of death penalty, they are just numbers that do not support actual crime rates. Anti-death penalty proponents offer numerous reasons why the death penalty should be abolished, including its perceived unconstitutionality and violation of human rights (Oggletree & Sarat, 2009). However, the strongest arguments are those that criticized the studies for their faulty methodologies, insufficient data and flawed assumptions (Liptak, 2007).
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The studies attempt to link executions with murder rate changes over time. They ask whether executions made a difference in the crime rate at a given period. While this is a valid research question, studies fail to take into account other variables that have direct effect on crime rate such as the effectiveness of the judicial system, demographic changes, and economic conditions. With that said, the idea that death penalty can be implemented without biases is completely misguided (Ogletree & Sarat, 2009). Critics add that the findings are skewed by data from a few jurisdictions, largely from Texas, hence, it is not representative of national data (Liptak, 2007). With so few actual executions, the data is thin and conclusions derived from it are considered weak and misleading.
In conclusion, it would be safe to say that there is no clear and indisputable evidence to suggest that the death penalty is an effective means to deter people from committing crimes or murderers from killing again. The ambiguous results of studies make the deterrence argument weak. They are not enough to justify executions. It is surprising how politicians continue to support death penalty instead of looking into more effective and reliable alternatives.
Lindsay, R. A. (2015) The Death Penalty Is Barbaric, Let’s Torture Instead! Capital Punishment and the Supermax Alternative [Online] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ronald-a-lindsay/the-death-penalty-is-barb_b_7215568.html [Accessed December 11, 2015]
Liptak, A. (2007) Does Death Penalty Save Lives? A New Debate [Online] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/18/us/18deter.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all [Accessed December 11, 2015]
Mocan, H. N. and Gittings, R. J. (2003) Getting Off Death Row: Commuted Sentences and the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment, 46 Journal of Law and Economics 453.
Ogletree, C.J. and Sarat, A. (eds.) (2009) The Road to Abolition? The Future of Capital Punishment in the United. New York: New York University Press.
Van den Haag, E. (1969) On Deterrence and the Death Penalty. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 60(2).
Zimmerman, P. R. (2004) State Executions, Deterrence and ‘the Incidence of Murder. Journal of Applied Economics 163.