Capital Punishment (18): The Stupidity of Deterrent Statistics, Ctd.

Some more data on the supposed deterrent effect of capital punishment:

In 2003, there were [in the U.S.] 16,503 homicides (including nonnegligent manslaughter), but only 144 inmates were sentenced to death. Moreover, of the 3374 inmates on death row at the beginning of the year, only 65 were executed. Thus, not only did very few homicides lead to a death sentence, but the prospect of execution did not greatly affect the life expectancy of death row inmates. Indeed, Katz, Levitt, and Shustorovich have made this point quite directly, arguing that “the execution rate on death row is only twice the death rate from accidents and violence among all American men” and that the death rate on death row is plausibly lower than the death rate of violent criminals not on death row. As such they conclude that “it is hard to believe that in modern America the fear of execution would be a driving force in a rational criminal’s calculus.” John J. Donohue III and Justin Wolfers (source)

Proponents of capital punishment may answer this in two ways:

1. It proves their point: if all these data are correct, we need more capital punishment, and then the deterrent effect will kick in. Capital punishment as it is used now may indeed not deter significantly, but that’s no reason to abolish it; it’s a reason to step up the production of corpses.

But this reasoning leads to a reductio ad absurdum: if deterring crime is so important, and if we should do more to deter crime, then why don’t we change the execution methods: burn criminals alive at the stake. That should deter. But this, of course, brings home the point that we simply can’t do what we want to people in order to achieve some beneficial aggregate social good. If proponents of the death penalty shy away from this ultimate implication of the deterrent argument – and I think most of them will – then there’s no reason why opponents cannot have good reasons to reject killing criminals in other, less cruel ways. If propopents concede the point that there are certain things we can’t do to people, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done, then opponents can make the case that these “certain things” do not only include burning people alive but also killing them in a way which is less cruel but which nevertheless implies instrumentalizing people for the benefit of others with whom they have no relationship and who may not have been born yet. This instrumentalization is perhaps not physically cruel, but it is dehumanizing. People are no longer viewed as humans but as tools for the maximization of social wellbeing.

2. The calculating criminal is a myth. Murderers don’t look at death row statistics or other statistics mentioned in the quote above in order to decide whether or not to actually kill someone. They are deterred, not by numbers, but by the general vivid image of the horror of capital punishment. That may be true in the case of some types of murderers (e.g. the uneducated ones, or those motivated by passion), but not in the case of other types (some people may indeed look at the data and calculate that the risk of being killed for their crimes is so low that it’s ok to go ahead*).

But even if it is true and people don’t calculate, the “burning at the stake” implication still holds. If it’s the vivid nature of the punishment that counts as a deterrent, not the statistical likelihood of actually receiving this punishment (which is very low as a matter of fact), then let’s make it as “vivid” as possible and bring back the Middle Ages.

* I’m thinking of professional criminals for example.

12 thoughts on “Capital Punishment (18): The Stupidity of Deterrent Statistics, Ctd.”

  1. The brutalization effect of executions

    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?

    complete review at;

    Note: there are now 16 recent studies, inclusive of their defenses, which find for death penalty deterrence.–confirmed–seven-recent-studies-updated-61204.aspx


  2. Both these posts are based upon an assumption that people support the death penalty because it is a deterrent to murder.

    I think this is a fallacy – people support the death penalty because it is logical and proportional response to the actions of our worst criminals. It is interesting to note the petitions and public agitation in the Casey Anthony case in Florida for the death penalty and for justice for Kayleigh as many writers put it.

    The death penalty is just that – a punishment. So is prison and so are fines.
    What the deterrent effect of any punishment is, is open to debate but until we can find other ways of dealing with criminals we are stuck with a punishment based system.

    In modern day America executions are so rare in most states as to be irrelevant.
    I live in Kentucky where we have had three since 1997, the last being at the prisoner’s behest. So there is no deeply ingrained concept that if you commit a bad murder in this state you will die for it.

    When one looks at the situation in early 20th century England however you see a completely different scenario.
    My website lists all 20th century British executions at and hanged2.html

    What is noticeable is the victim list. Many were wives and girlfriends because divorce was very difficult at this time. Very few were bank employees or other victims of robbery. It was always said that career criminals were very careful to avoid armed confrontations because if someone was killed they would hang for it.

    In the first decade of that century 284 people were convicted of murder in Britain and received the mandatory death sentence. Or just 28.4 people per year in a population nearing 50 million. Britain was a very safe place to live at the time because people thought they would hang for murder. In reality only 159 of these 284 were executed.

    Clearly the death penalty is not a deterrent to all types of murder, such as domestic murders and those committed by sexual perverts. However at least in the case of the latter it permanently removes them from society.

    In conclusion I think that support for the death penalty by “ordinary” people will continue because they focus on the heinousness of the crime rather than theoretical discussions of this ilk.

    Richard Clark


  3. Mr. Clark:

    On my part, there is, most certainly, no implication that people support the death penalty based upon deterrence.

    People support legal sanctions because they find them to be just and appriopriate for the crime(s) committed.

    About 80% of US citizens support the death penalty for death penalty eligible, capital murderers.

    I suspect that percentage would be even higher if folks also knew that

    1) havng the death penalty protects more innocent lives and

    2) Not having the death penalty sacrifices more innocent lives.

    see “The Death Penalty Provides More Protection for Innocents”—new-mexico.aspx


  4. There are 16 recent studies, inclusive of their defences, which find for death penalty deterrence.

    No surprise.

    Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life.


  5. Mr. Sharp,

    I think we have communicated in the past when I lived in the UK.

    I very much agree with your comments as to support for the death penalty in the US.
    Any deterrent effect of a particular punishment should be seen as a bonus, rather that a raison d’etre. It is clear that in those countries such as Singapore that actually execute people, there are far fewer murders. People know what will happen to them and as you say they fear death so will find other ways to resolve issues that do not involve murder.


  6. […] Rehabilitation (3) in turn discards some of the unrealistic assumptions of deterrence (2), such as rationality on the part of future criminals and strict enforcement of the law, and tries to avoid some of the counterintuitive consequences of deterrence (2), such as the tendency to increase the severity of punishments resulting from the need to tip the scale in the risk analysis of criminals. It also tries to avoid the immoral instrumentalization inherent in deterrence. Moreover, it’s not clear that deterrence works, empirically. […]


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