“Proponents of the death penalty often argue that the threat of being executed acts as a deterrent that prevents people from committing murder. But those who oppose capital punishment challenge that claim. And some researchers argue that state-sanctioned execution might actually increase homicide rates.
Now, a panel of independent experts convened by the prestigious National Research Council has taken a look at this question and decided that the available research offers no useful information for policymakers.
“We recognize that this conclusion may be controversial to some, but nobody is well-served by unsupportable claims about the effect of the death penalty, regardless of whether the claim is that the death penalty deters homicides, has no effect on homicides, or actually increases homicides,” says Daniel Nagin, a public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University who chaired the committee.
This committee did not examine the moral arguments for or against the death penalty. Its job was to look at the science. Nagin says the panel reviewed dozens of studies and found fundamental flaws.
Controversial, yes. It’s important to emphasize that the death penality issue is more of a moral argument. But many who support it say it is a useful deterrent. Is it? How do you know? The realities of committing horrific crimes are more complicated than that.
The article notes the flaws in trying to measure such things. Seriously consider this: is someone consumed by rage or anger, enough to murder, actually thinking so much about the consequences? Does he even KNOW that his state may allow the death penalty? What about life in prison? How does that fit into the equation. Is the threat of punishment REALLY coming into play when people are obviously not acting rationally? You can see how difficult it would be to study this. Murder rates have FAR MORE complicating factors at play than the degree of punishment that may follow. It would be absurd to think that one single factor, imposing the threat of death, could be clearly shown to affect the homocide rate.
From LA Times:
“Nothing is known about how potential murderers actually perceive their risk of punishment,” he said.
Nagin, a professor of public policy and statistics at Carnegie Mellon University, said more data were needed on the full range of penalties across the country before they are cited as basis for changing public policy.
More precise data collection is needed, Nagin said, because the issue is so fundamentally difficult to study. For example, it’s scientifically impossible to know exactly what was going on in someone’s head when they killed someone — even if they are interviewed about it afterward.”
As more states abolish the death penalty for moral reasons, we see the moral aspect considered more than the scientific one. And that appears to be a good thing because the science is worthless in providing accurate information at this point.
And then, there are degrees. Here’s the dilemma… do you keep it and possibly put innocent people to death (as was SURELY done many times through it’s history of use), or do you ban it and keep mass murderers who are detrimental to society like Jeffrey Dahmer alive and supported by taxpayer money? Is there some middle ground? With serial killers, for example, the purpose of the death penalty is not as a deterrent but as a way to deal with a dangerous social deviant.
It’s a question that may have no “right” answer. It’s a matter of personal opinion. Science can help inform (with sound studies) but can never be the sole decider on such issues.