Capital Punishment (15): The Stupidity of Deterrent Statistics

It’s far from obvious that the death penalty has a deterrent effect. Some of the data even suggest the possibility that instead of a deterrent effect, capital punishment has a brutalization effect (because it sends out the normative message that violent retaliation is the normal response to ill-treatment and that the sanctity of life is a naive moral ideal). States with high numbers of executions tend to have high levels of violent crime and murder.

Anyway, let’s be generous and admit that there may or may not be a deterrent effect. According to me, as long as this question is open, deterrence can’t be used as a justification for capital punishment. Of course, proponents of capital punishment keep looking for the effect because it would be the only widely acceptable justification of this type of punishment. (I argued here that even if the deterrent effect exists, it doesn’t justify the death penalty because deterrence is inherently immoral).

One of the most silly “findings” I’ve ever seen is here. This “study” claims to show that every execution results in 18 fewer murders. However, the authors failed to note that, if this were true, and the U.S. would execute today all the approx. 3.300 inmates on death row, there would be no more murders in the U.S. (there are between 15.000 and 20.000 homicides in the U.S. annually). That can’t possibly be true. A nice study, I have to say.

(Pointed out to me by this paper).

16 thoughts on “Capital Punishment (15): The Stupidity of Deterrent Statistics”

  1. Assuming the perp is guilty(for the sake of argument) the most important effect is that they have no chance of killing again after they have been given the green dream.


  2. Filip
    the number of murders within US prisons actually suggests that you are wrong to suggest that life without parole has the same preventative effect for proven killers killing again.


    1. Can I point you to this paper? It’s a good analysis of previous studies on the deterrent effect. The conclusion is that the existence of such an effect is extremely doubtful.


  3. Death Penalty, Deterrence & Murder Rates: Let’s be clear
    by Dudley Sharp

    There is a constant within all jurisdictions — negative consequences will always deter some – it is a truism. Therefore, the question is not “Can we prove that the death penalty acts to deter some?” Of course it does. The question is “Can death penalty opponents prove the death penalty does not deter some?” Of course they can’t.

    Whether a jurisdiction has high murder rates or low ones, rather rising or lowering rates, the presence of the death penalty will produce fewer net murders, the absence of the death penalty will produce more net murders.

    It is just like smoking rates or the rates at which people speed in their cars, whether a jurisdiction has the highest such rates or the lowest of such rates, there will always be some, in all jurisdictions, who don’t smoke because of the deterrence of fear of health problems and don’t speed because of the deterrence of speeding violations, resulting in criminal prosecution and higher insurance costs.

    see the rest at:


    1. I’d say the fact that people are still committing murder proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the death penalty does NOT deter some.


      1. Monique:

        Look at your reasoning.

        You are saying that because some people cheat on their taxes NONE are deterred by sanction from cheating on thier taxes.

        Because SOME don’t wear seatbelts, there are NONE who wear setabelts to protect their lives.

        Your reasoning is very flawed.


  4. Filip:

    I think you need to reconsider the brutalization effect.

    Some, particularly death penalty opponents, find that the brutalization effect is more likely than the deterrent effect. The brutalization effect finds that murders will increase because potential murderers will murder because of the example of state executions.

    Why would potential and active murderers be so influenced by the state in such a deep philosophical manner, revealed by brutalization, but they wouldn’t be more affected by the simple “you murder, we execute you?”

    Death penalty opponents make an interesting about face on this issue. They insist that criminals are so thoughtless and impulsive that they can’t be affected by the potential of negative consequences but, then, those same opponents see criminals as so contemplative that their criminal actions increase BECAUSE those criminals follow the example of the state. One might ask those opponents: “Is there any other government action which influences criminals in such a fashion?” Do criminals kidnap more BECAUSE the state increases incarceration rates? Do criminals give money to potential victims BECAUSE the state donates to needy causes?


  5. Deterrence is not immoral. It is an outcome of the death penalty, not the reason for it.

    People only support legal sanctions because they find them to be just and appropriate.

    It just so happens that the death penalty saves innocent lives in three ways, but such life savings, as important as it is, is still, only an outcome of the death penalty, not a reason for it.

    “The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents”


  6. I seldom leave responses, however I read a lot of
    remarks on this page Capital Punishment (15): The Stupidity of Deterrent Statistics | P.
    a.p.-Blog, Human Rights Etc.. I actually do have 2 questions
    for you if you don’t mind. Is it just me or do a few of the responses come across like they are coming from brain dead folks? :-P And, if you are posting at other social sites, I would like to keep up with you. Could you post a list of every one of your social networking pages like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?


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