Capital Punishment (42): The Stupidity of Deterrent Statistics, Ctd.

The so-called deterrent effect is one of the main arguments in favor of capital punishment. I’ve argued many times before that the data we have don’t support the existence of this 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).

The following quote nicely summarizes the difficulty of proving the deterrent effect:

I would like to know how a statistical study, no matter how sophisticated, can possibly tell us the subjective motives for acts that were never taken and, moreover, how it can do so with the specificity of telling us approximately how many people did not do what they otherwise would have done under different circumstances. Where are these people? And, more importantly, how would we recognize one if we happened across him or her? (source)

Of course, people who want to disprove the deterrent effect also face this difficulty, but I assume we can agree that the burden of proof is on those who want to use the effect as an argument in favor of capital punishment. And that turns out to be a very heavy burden in this case.

Anyway, even if deterrence could be proven and even if we could establish with some certainty that every execution saves n lives – as some have argued, oblivious of the difficulties pointed out in the quote above – then we would still have good reasons to reject capital punishment.

More here.

2 thoughts on “Capital Punishment (42): The Stupidity of Deterrent Statistics, Ctd.”

  1. Of Course the Death Penalty Deters:
    Death Penalty Deterrence Clarified
    Dudley Sharp
    There is much confusion about deterrence, some, understandable and, some, intentional.

    There are many examples of:

    1) murder rates dropping in death penalty jurisdictions and
    2) murder rates being lower in death penalty jurisdictions

    and many examples of

    3) murder rates dropping in non death penalty jurisdictions and
    4) murder rates being lower in non death penalty jurisdictions

    In different instances, murder/crime rates might suggest deterrence or non deterrence of sanctions.

    In other words, gross murder/crime rates are not an accurate method of showing or understanding deterrence.

    Some anti death penalty folks work hard to muddy the waters – as with this study, wherein some thought the criminologists had agreed that the death penalty deters none, a finding not confirmed within the study:

    “Deterrence & the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock”

    Confusion and understanding, respectively, are revealed by these two questions from a death penalty opponent.

    Confusion: “If the deterrence contention holds true, why does the enthusiastic application of the death penalty not suppress the overall murder rate across all death penalty states?”

    Then, with understanding:

    “I understand your point that the death penalty has some deterrent effect. Perhaps the citizens of South Dakota are simply more homicidal than their northern neighbors, and without the death penalty keeping them in check, the murder rate would go through the roof.”

    Yes, it has some deterrent effect, but it is clear he had not read the provided deterrence studies because they contradicted his comment about murder rates going through the roof.

    The deterrent effect has a very small impact on murder rates, but a substantial savings in innocent lives, as reviewed below.

    The death penalty, as all criminal sanctions, deters some, which will be reflected in net murder/crime rates, not gross ones, as explained: Whether murder/crime rates are high or low, whether they are rising, falling or staying, roughly, the same, all sanctions deter some.

    A perfect example of this is:

    “Henderson, Nev., takes the No. 2 spot (America’s Safest Cities) despite its location within the Metropolitan Statistical Area of Las Vegas-Paradise, which ranked ninth this year on Forbes’ list of America’s Most Dangerous Cities.” (1)

    Does this mean no potential criminals are deterred in Las Vegas-Paradise and yet some are deterred in Henderson?

    Of course not. Some are deterred in both.

    It means that there are different factors in each jurisdiction which provide for different crime rates, as with all jurisdictions, inclusive of the deterrent effect of criminal sanctions, within both jurisdictions.

    This should come as no surprise.

    Death penalty opponent response: “However, the fact that murder rates are lower across the board in non death penalty (USA) states suggests that there is something else, some more effective deterrent which you would do well to investigate, if you weren’t hidebound by your single minded advocacy of the death penalty.”

    They are not lower across the board. Even if they were, it could not contradict the clear and accurate point.

    Furthermore, anti death penalty folks neglect the obvious reality that there are a very wide range of murder/crime rates between communities/cities/counties, within each individual state, be they death penalty or not, revealing the obvious error of the opponents intended point (2).

    I think everyone knows that there are multiple deterrents to committing crime: Morality, change of social status if caught, the prospect of being caught and/or sanctioned, being the four most obvious (2)

    Note that the 28 recent studies, finding for deterrence (3), find for deterrence of from 1-28 murders prevented per execution. Deterrence was also found to exist just by the presence of the death penalty statute.

    While this represents a substantial and very important savings of innocent lives, it has a very small impact on murder rates.

    The US has averaged around 33 executions per year since 1973, which equals a deterrent savings of innocents lives of from 33 to 924 per year.

    My guesstimate is that the US has averaged about 18,000 murders per years since 1973.

    The deterrent effect provides a near negligible impact on the murder rate (min 0.2% to max 5%), based upon those deterrence studies, but provides a huge savings in innocent lives.

    Even without those studies, most of us realize that all prospects of a negative outcome deter some. It is an unqualified truism, for which no exception exists. Some are so hidebound by their opposition to the death penalty that they must find that the death penalty, the most severe of criminal sanctions, is the ONLY criminal sanction that deters none – a truly absurd notion.

    1) “America’s Safest Cities”, Lifestyle section, Forbes, 12/15/2011,

    2) See Sections C and D within:

    The Death Penalty: Saving More Innocent Lives

    3) 28 recent studies finding for deterrence, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation


  2. […] No. It’s not because you have committed a crime that you lose all your rights. The severity of criminal punishment should remain within certain bounds, and the need to be tough on crime doesn’t give you permission to do whatever it takes to be tough on crime. Most laws will never be respected in all cases anyway. A fetishistic attitude towards law enforcement isn’t helpful or necessary. Reasonably good enforcement is good enough. Convicting or deterring the marginal criminal is not a benefit that outweighs the harm done to the rights of criminals by the systematic imposition of extreme punishment (and extreme punishment has to be systematic if it is to have the required deterrent effect; punishing only one criminal in an extreme way won’t do any good, and some say that even systematic punishment has no deterrent effect). […]


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