Thursday, July 02, 2009

Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock

Dudley Sharp, contact info below

Subject:"Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists", by Michael Radelet, Traci Lacock (1)

There appears to be a lot of confusion, with regard to the actual findings of the subject review/survey (hereinafter "Survey").


Within this Survey, the response to question 12 finds that 92% of the criminologists agree that the death penalty may deter some.

It is a rational conclusion. All prospects of a negative outcome/consequence deter the behavior of some. It is a truism.

The responses to question 8 found that 61% (or 46) of the criminologists found some support for the deterrent effects of the death penalty through the empirical, social science studies.

16 (now 24) recent studies, since 1996,  inclusive of their defenses (2), find for death penalty deterrence. These studies find executions deter from 1-28 murders per execution.

Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life. No surprise.

If your public policy question is "Does the death penalty deter?" The answer is "Of course it does."

Game over? Not quite.

Can we accurately and convincingly measure how many innocent lives are spared because of the deterrent effect of the death penalty? Unlikely. Social sciences are not exact sciences. Even if all protocols and data are sound, results will still vary from study to study. This public policy debate is so contentious, in academia, as elsewhere, that there will always be some disagreement over methodology and results. Therefore, the "convincingly" will always be problematic with such studies.

The question is not "Does the death penalty deter?" It does. The question is "Will there every be full agreement on how much the death penalty deters?" There won't be.


The first three survey questions are specific to murder rates and deterrence. Both reason and social science have known, for a very long time, that murder rates are not how deterrence is established.

For example, look at crime rates. Some jurisdictions have high crime rates, some low - from year to year crime rates go up, down or stay, roughly, the same. In all of those circumstances, we know that some potential criminals are deterred from committing crimes.

It is the same with all which deters, inclusive of the death penalty. Whether murder rates go up or down, whether they are high or low, there will be fewer net murders with the death penalty and more net murders without it.

Would Radelet/Lacock or the criminologists say that no criminals are deterred because one jurisdiction has higher crime rates than another or because crime rates have risen? Of course not. It would be silly to even suggest such a thing.

But, it appears that is what Radelt/Lacock are trying to do with there first three questions. It's nonsense.

Questions 4 and 5 deal with political implications, which have no relevance to deterrence.

Statement 6 "The death penalty significantly reduces the number of homicides". Nearly 57% (or 43) of criminologists said the statement was totally inaccurate.

How do the authors quantify a "significant reduction" in murders? They don't. Therefore, no one has a clue as to what the authors or respondents meant.

How many innocent lives saved by deterrence is insignificant? There is no insignificant number.

One deterred is significant if it is your child's life saved. Is 2-5 innocents saved per year or per execution a significant reduction? 11-25, 112-210, 1800-2800? What is a "significant reduction" in homicides for these 43 criminologists?

There is a reason Radelet/Lacock didn't say: "The death penalty deters no one." No one can rationally, or truthfully, make such a statement.

Question 7 regards whether the death penalty is a stronger deterrent to homicide than a life sentence. 91%, or a total of 67, of the criminologists said no.

Even if the death penalty is only equal in value as a life sentence, as a deterrent, then the death penalty is an important deterrent.

There are several major tiebreakers in this "equality".

First, look at those murderers who were not deterred. About 99.9% of all of those murderers who face the death penalty either plea bargain to a life sentence, go to trial, seeking a life sentence, argue for life, not death, in the punishment phase of their trials and fight a, seemingly, never ending appellate battle to stay alive while they are on death row.

If 99.9% of death penalty eligible murderers not deterred, tell us they fear execution more than life, what about those more reasoned, potential murderers, who have chosen not to murder? Is it possible that they, like most of us, prefer life over death and fear death more than life?

Of course, execution is more of a deterrent than life.

Secondly, there are a number of real life stories of potential murderers who have stated that it was the death penalty that prevented them from committing murder. This is known as the individual deterrent effect. In these cases, the death penalty was an enhanced deterrent over a life sentence, just as the first example found. In addition, individual, enhanced deterrence cannot exist without general, enhanced deterrence. Therefore, there is a general, enhanced deterrent.

Thirdly, if we are unsure about deterrence, there is no "equality" in the results of our choices.

If there is deterrence and we execute, we save innocent lives via deterrence and by preventing murderers from ever harming again. If there is deterrence and we fail to execute, we sacrifice more innocent lives by reduced deterrence and, additionally, put more innocents at risk, because living murderers are always more likely to harm again, than are executed ones. If there is no deterrence and we execute, we protect more innocents because of enhanced incapacitation. If there is no deterrence and we don't execute, more innocents are at risk because the murderer is still alive.

The weight of the evidence is that the death penalty is an enhanced deterrent over a life sentence and any deterrence is significant for many of us.

There is a reason Radelet/Lacock didn't ask: "Can you prove the death penalty does not deter some who were not deterred by a life sentence?" Answer: Of course not.

Radelet/Lacock may misinterpret how important deterrence is to the argument for capital punishment.

No one can support the death penalty, solely, because of deterrence, because they first must find the sanction just and deserved. Just ask anyone that says they support the death penalty solely because of deterrence: "If you didn't find the person deserved the death penalty, would you still support their execution because of deterrence?"

80% of those polled in the US support the death penalty for death eligible, capital murders. (3)

The Survey review appears to agree that deterrence is not much of a foundation for death penalty support. Folks support the death penalty because it is a just and appropriate sanction for the crimes committed - the same reason they support all legal sanctions.

However, Radelet/Lacock overlooked that death penalty deterrence appears to be a significant threat to anti death penalty folks. That is because a deterrent effect will mean that in achieving their goals anti death penalty folks will be sparing the lives of murderers, at the cost of more innocents murdered. It is a tough result for anti death penalty folks who find themselves with a terrible dilemma.

The death penalty saves lives, in at least three ways, over a life sentence, - enhanced incapacitation, enhanced due process and enhanced deterrence. Yet, those benefits remain secondary to execution being a just and appropriate sanction for some murders.


Pretend that there is an imaginary world where the evidence is completely neutral on the effects of negative prospects, where there is no evidence of what incentives mean to behavior.

Do we have two equally balanced prospects? The death penalty/executions deter and the death penalty/executions don't deter.

This prospect is neither inconclusive nor equally balanced, because you have a prospect between sparing innocent life, via death penalty/execution deterrence or a prospect of death penalty/execution, with no deterrence, but enhanced incapacitation.

If deterrence is inconclusive, the prospect of saving innocent lives is not.

Let's look at what criminologists are not saying. They are not saying "The death penalty deters no one." They can't. Reason, common sense and human experience all find that the prospects of a negative outcome/consequence deter some. It is a truism.

Why would the most severe criminal sanction be the only one that doesn't deter some? It wouldn't be.

All legal sanctions deter some.

This debate is often turned backwards, with anti death penalty folks saying "There is no deterrent effect of the death penalty." or asking "Can you prove there is a deterrent effect?"

As all prospects of a negative outcome/consequence deter some, the burden of proof is not on those who say the death penalty deters, but on those who say it does not. Can death penalty opponents prove that the death penalty does not deter some? Of course not.

What social science conflicts with the notion that the potential for negative outcomes/consequences restrains the behavior of some? There are none. Execution is the most serious negative outcome/consequence that a murderer may face.


This Survey was funded by Sheilah's Fund at the Tides Foundation in San Francisco and was arranged through the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) in Washington, D.C.

The Tides Foundation Death Penalty Mobilization Fund's sole purpose is the end of the death penalty. Sheilah's Fund is a direct contributor to anti death penalty efforts, as well.

The DPIC is one of the leading anti death penalty groups in the US and, in my opinion, is one of the most deceptive.

Prof. Radelet has been one of the most active anti death penalty activists for decades.

Jeffrey Fagan is a ASC Fellow and has been an anti death penalty activist for decades.

For context and perspective, it is important to look at the recent past and current positions of the American Society of Criminology (ASC).

Not long ago, the subtitle to the ASC Death Penalty Resources page was “Anti-Capital Punishment Resources”. They were a proud anti death penalty organization. As today, ASC listed few, if any, capital punishment resources which had a positive view of the death penalty.

If you visit their site, today, and go to their death penalty material, references and links, it is almost all anti death penalty. Their referenced essays are typical anti death penalty material that are, easily, contradicted.

This is not uncommon in academia.

The ASC has an official position against the death penalty.

Bias can be overcome and studies/reviews can be accurate and reliable despite bias. It is always a benefit to the reader to know the bias of the funding agency and author(s) of any study/review.

1) Northwestern University School of Law's Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

2) As noted in the Survey, the study authors have not replied to all criticisms of their econometric studies finding for deterrence, just some. That often reflects that the authors found no reason for a defense because the criticism was unworthy of rebuttal (my suspicion with Fagan) or they have not yet published a response (my suspicion with Berk). The fact that 61% of the criminologists find some credibility with deterrence, as detected by the empirical studies is important.

Some of the 24 studies and their defenses
Article on Death Penalty Deterrence, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation

3) Most quoted polls wrongly poll for murder, not capital murders. The death penalty is only an option in limited capital, death eligible murders.EXAMPLES: (1)82% in the US favored executing Saddam Hussein. In Great Britain: 69%, France: 58%, Germany: 53%, Spain: 51%, Italy: 46%. (Le Monde (France) , 12/06); (2)81% support Timothy McVeigh’s execution – “the consensus of all major groups, including men, women, whites, nonwhites, “liberals” and “conservatives.” 16% oppose (Gallup 5/2/01); (3) 85% of liberal Connecticut supported serial/rapist murderer Michael Ross’ “voluntary” execution (Quinnipiac 1/12/05); (4) 79% support death penalty for terrorists (4/26/2007 New York State poll); (5) 78% of Nebraskans support death penalty for “heinous crimes.” 16% opposed.(MPB Public Affairs Poll, 2/14/08).

Related Issue


Victim's Voices - These are the murder victims

Dudley Sharp
e-mail 713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas

Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS, VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.

A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.