Saturday, December 08, 2012


Dudley Sharp

There is much confusion about deterrence, some, understandable and, some, intentional.

There are many examples of murder rates dropping or being lower in death penalty jurisdictions.

And many examples of murder rates dropping or 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 a consistent or accurate method of showing or understanding deterrence (1). There are some deterrence studies which find a reduction in murders, soon after executions.  Howevewr, I am, primarily, dealing with murders and murder rates for any given year.

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 and which cannot be confirmed, ever.

"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 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, but not gross ones, consistently, as explained: Whether murder/crime rates are high or low, whether they are rising, falling or staying, roughly, the same, all sanctions deter some, in all jurisdictions.

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." (2)

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 (3).

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 (3)

Note that the 24 recent studies, finding for deterrence (4), 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 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 estimate is that the US has averaged about 18,000 murders per years since 1973 (5).

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)   a)  "Death Penalty, Deterrence & Murder Rates: Let's be clear"


2) "America's Safest Cities", Lifestyle section, Forbes, 12/15/2011,

and also

Top 25 Most Dangerous Neighborhoods in America, NeighborhoodScout

11 have no death penalty,  4 of those are the most violent. 

3) See Sections C and D within:
The Death Penalty: Saving More Innocent Lives

4) 28 recent studies finding for deterrence, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation

5) The Disaster Center, from FBI, UCR Reports

Related Issues:


99.7% of murderers tells us "Give me life, not execution"

Innocents More At Risk Without Death Penalty

"Death Penalty, Deterrence & Murder Rates: Let's be clear"

Victim's Voices - These are the murder victims