Is the death penalty a deterrent for homicides? It’s complicated and we don’t know.

Death Penalty Research Flawed, Expert Panel Says

“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.

Source: NPR

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.

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  4 comments for “Is the death penalty a deterrent for homicides? It’s complicated and we don’t know.

  1. April 19, 2012 at 11:51 AM

    I was a correctional officer in a maximum security prison for ten years, and I can safely say that, in general, the death penalty is not a deterent to murder. But it still removes a potential threat with his/her share of murders to their name.

    If everyone knew what it cost to put a killer to death, they might not complain so much about their tax money supporting a social miscreant.

    The death penalty deters only a few potential killers, and it saves the tax payers very little, which would only be taken for something else if it didn’t support an inmate.

    Personally, after seeing so many killers given the opportunity to kill again as a result of twisted and imperfect laws, I support the death penalty. Sadly, those same twisted and imperfect laws can take the lives of those who were only a threat once, or were never a threat to begin with.

    There are no easy answers when it comes to murder.

  2. Stew Green
    April 19, 2012 at 12:00 PM

    - Usually things get more complex the more you analyse, but not always. As well as permanently removing the chance of remedy if the state screws up & gets the wrong man, there is clear logic showing the death penalty incentivizes more murder.
    – Once you are already a murderer the death penalty has no deterrent effect as they can’t be executed twice. Indeed the death penalty can encourage them to further murder, cos if there was a witness in the process of escaping they might as well kill the witness rather than just injure them.
    – So a murderer has no incentive to stop after one, but more worryingly hostage takers have no reason not to surrender if what they’ve already done will have already got them the death penalty.
    …. not that people worry about the deterrent before they commit a crime as they think they won’t be caught anyway.
    ..Sure the criminals don’t be caught everytime, it’s a question of the odds, as Clint says “ask yourself, do I feel lucky ?”
    … even a 1 in 3 or 1 in 5 chance is a high risk against a life sentence…so be good.

  3. F89
    April 19, 2012 at 2:24 PM

    For a complex issue, that was probably some of the clearest and objectively thought out responses I’ve ever seen.
    Too bad dialogue like this can’t be held on a larger level, without it devolving into an emotional/political free- for all.
    To me the death penalty is not a deterrent, but the ultimate punishment: You take a life, and yours will be taken: but it could be argued that a life sentice “takes” one’s life.
    I agree-there are no easy answers.

  4. Rusty
    April 19, 2012 at 5:21 PM

    I don’t support the death penalty but have always been skeptical about the claims that it is not a deterrent. It is the ultimate deterrent for the executed person. Ever hear of an executed person reoffending?

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