Monday, March 04, 2013


updated 3/2019

Of Course The Death Penalty Deters: A review of the debate

Dudley Sharp

If you are unsure about deterrence, then you can risk sacrificing more innocent lives by not using the death penalty or you can "risk" saving more innocent lives by using it.

Make your choice.

 It is odd that anyone would think the death penalty was not a deterrent.

1) The evidence that the death penalty deters some is overwhelming. The evidence that the death penalty deters none is non existent.

2) All prospects of a negative outcome deter some. That is a truism. Execution is the most severe negative outcome for criminals.

3) Death is feared more than life. Life is preferred over death.  That which we fear more, deters more. That which we prefer more deters less.

4) No study finds that the death penalty deters none. They cannot. No credible academic says the death penalty deters none. Rationally and factually, they cannot.

The case for death penalty deterrence, as with all severe criminal deterrents, overwhelms the evidence that none are deterred, an absurdity.

5) There are numerous cases where it has been found that potential murderers have been deterred from committing murder, because of their fear of the death penalty (1).

This is known as individual deterrence. We know the death penalty deters some. Not only is such confirmed, it cannot be rebutted, as neither rationally nor factually can anyone state the death penalty deters none.

6) General deterrence exists, because individual deterrence could not exist without it.

Nobel Prize Laureate Gary Becker:

“the evidence of a variety of types — not simply the quantitative evidence — has been enough to convince me that capital punishment does deter and is worth using for the worst sorts of offenses.” ( Does Death Penalty Save Lives? A New Debate, by Adam Liptak, NY Times, NOV. 18, 2007)
"(Becker) is the most important social scientist in the past 50 years (1964-2014) (The New York Times May 5, 2014). Becker was an economist, sociologist and empiricist at the U of Chicago.

7) Anti death penalty folks say that the burden of proof is on those who say that the death penalty deters. Untrue. It is a rational truism that all potential and severe negative outcomes deter some - there is no exception, just as we know that negative incentives, just as positive ones, affect behavior.

It, then, follows that it is the burden of death penalty opponents to prove that the death penalty, the most severe of criminal sanctions, is the only prospect of a severe negative outcome that deters none. They cannot.

8) All criminal sanctions deter some. If you doubt that, what do you think would happen if we ended all laws, all criminal sanctions and all law enforcement? No rational person has any doubt. All aspects of what we now call "crime" would rise, some overwhelmingly. Somalia comes to mind.

Some would have us, irrationally, believe that the most severe sanction, execution, is the only sanction which deters none.

9) All criminal sanctions, regardless of crime/murder rates, deter some (2). Just because crime/murder rates are low in one jurisdiction and high in another, doesn't mean that no one is deterred in the jurisdiction with higher rates, as death penalty opponents would claim.

We all know that within different states or countries, there are neighborhoods, zip codes, towns, cities and neighborhoods which have varying crime/murder rates. All sanctions deter in all of those jurisdictions, but they have different rates because of different circumstances (2). It is not that none are deterred, simply because there are higher crime/murder rate in one jurisdiction than another. The claim is irrational on its face (2).

Let's say that the country of Iceland and the city/state of Singapore have the lowest of all crime and murder rates. Does that mean that in all other cities and countries that none are deterred, because all of them have higher rates than Singapore and Iceland? Again, it's ridiculous on its face, but that is what anti death penalty folks are saying, in contradiction of common sense, reason and history.

10) Anti death penalty columnists Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune states, "No one argues that the death penalty deters none." "Will someone bent on murder turn from the crime when he contemplates the fact that he may be executed for it? Obviously that will happen." (3).

More precisely, it "does" happen and always has.

Zorn is in error. Some do argue, without rational and factual support, that the death penalty deters none.

Zorn is correct, the issue is not "Does the death penalty deter?". It does.

The only issue is to what degree.

Therefore, anti death penalty efforts must contend with the reality that sparing murderers does sacrifice more innocent lives , by reduced deterrence, lesser incapacitation and lesser due process, and executing murderers does save more innocent lives, by enhanced incapacitation, enhanced deterrence and enhanced due process.

11) Even the dean of anti death penalty academics, Hugo Adam Bedau, agrees that the death penalty deters, but he doesn't believe it deters more than a life sentence (4).

He's right. It deters.

The evidence is that the death penalty is an enhanced deterrent over a life sentence.

Nearly 100% of those murderers subject to the death penalty do everything they can to avoid the death penalty (5). No, they were not deterred, at least not for that murder, but they reflect what, nearly all do, which is that life is preferred over death and death is feared more than life. 

What we prefer more, deters less. What we fear more, deters more. Basic.

What of potential murderers?

They, like the rest of us, embrace/prefer life more than death and fear death more than life.

The evidence is expressly clear and overwhelming that death is feared more than life and life is preferred over death, not just for potential murderers who may face execution, but by a majority of all of us.

When 99.7% of murderers, who are subject to the death penalty, tell us they fear death more than life (5) and when about 99.9% of the rest of us (excluding the determined suicidal and/or terribly ill) tell us they prefer life over death, it is a certainty that some potential murderers, overwhelmingly feel the same, and thus fear execution more than life.

What we fear the most deters the most. This is historically, factually and rationally true.

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

Would a more rational group, those who choose not to murder, also share in that overwhelming fear of death and be deterred by the prospects of execution? Of course - just as we all do.

12) There is substantial factual evidence for anecdotal death penalty deterrence and as an enhanced deterrent (1).

13) Consider:

a) If we execute and there is no deterrence, we have justly punished a murderer and have prevented that murderer from ever harming/murdering, again, thus saving more innocent lives.

b) If we execute and there is deterrence, we have those benefits (a), plus we have spared even more additional innocent lives via deterrence;

c) If we don't execute and there is deterrence, we have spared murderers at the cost of more innocent deaths, via the loss of a greater deterrent, as well as by lesser incapacitation;

d) If we don't execute and there is no deterrence, we risk more harm and death to innocents, because living murderers harm and murder, again. Executed murderers do not.


"If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call."

John McAdams - Marquette University/Department of Political Science


14) "How much does the death penalty deter?". There will never be a consensus answer to that question. Even the 24 studies that have found for death penalty deterrence since 1996, have widely different findings, that from 1-28 murderers are deterred per execution (or 33 to 924 saved per year via deterrence, or  1,320 -  36,960 lives saved, for the forty years, 1973-2012. This is an average from when new statutes came into law, post Furman, 1972. Executions did not resume until 1977 (6)

Although these studies have been subject to criticism, the criticism, itself, has either been rebutted and/or the criticism is weaker than the studies finding for deterrence (7), inclusive of the horrendous National Research Council hatchet job by Prof. Nagin.. To my knowledge, all of the authors finding for deterrence stand by their studies. In addition, none of the criticism negates 1-12, and/or 14, herein.

Even without those 24 studies, the argument for death penalty deterrence and its enhanced deterrent effect overwhelms any claim that the death penalty deters none, for which no evidence exists.

15) Reason, common sense, history and the facts support that the death penalty deters and deters more than lesser sanctions.

If you are concerned about innocent lives that deserve to be saved, you may consider supporting the death penalty (8).

If you are unsure about deterrence, then you can risk sacrificing more innocent lives by not using the death penalty or you can "risk" saving more innocent lives by using it.


(1)  Some factual evidence for specific cases of individual deterrence.

a)  Opinion: People v Love

starting right after that which is in bold, below, which is about 1/4 down from the top and goes to the end.

Be patient.
Gibson, C. J., Peters, J., White, J., and Dooling, J., concurred.

I dissent.

b) One Iowa prisoner, who escaped from a transportation van, with a number of other prisoners, stated that he made sure that the overpowered guards were not harmed, because of his fear of the death penalty in Texas. The prisoners were being transported through Texas, on their way to New Mexico, when the escape occurred. Most compelling is that he was a twice convicted murderer from a non death penalty state, Iowa. In addition, he was under the false impression that Texas had the death penalty for rape and, as a result, also protected the woman guard from assault. "Langley says Texas death penalty affected his actions during escape", by Stephen Martin, The Daily Democrat (Ft. Madison, Iowa), 1/8/97, pg 1.

c)  New York Law School Professor Robert Blecker recorded his interview with a convicted murderer. The murderer robbed and killed drug dealers in Washington DC., where he was conscious that there was no death penalty. He specifically did not murder a drug dealer in Virginia because, and only because, he envisioned himself strapped in the electric chair, which he had personally seen many times while imprisoned in Virginia. pending book,

d)  Senator Dianne Feinstein explained, ''I remember well in the 1960s when I was sentencing a woman convicted of robbery in the first degree and I remember looking at her commitment sheet and I saw that she carried a weapon that was unloaded into a grocery store robbery. I asked her the question: ‘Why was your gun unloaded?’ She said to me: ‘So I would not panic, kill somebody, and get the death penalty.’ That was firsthand testimony directly to me that the death penalty in place in California in the sixties was in fact a deterrent.''California District Attorneys Association, ''Prosecutors Perspective on California’s Death Penalty,'' March 2003

e)  a number of additional examples from




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

3) "Death penalty and deterrence -- the argument from anecdote", Eric Zorn, Change of Subject page, Chicago Tribune,4/23/2011,

4) "An Abolitionist's Survey of the Death Penalty in America Today", Hugo Adam Bedau, Chapter 2, within Debating the death penalty: should America have capital punishment? : the experts on both sides make their case, editors Hugo Adam Bedau, Paul G. Cassell, Oxford University Press, 2004. SHARP REVIEW: AN EXCELLENT BOOK PRESENTING BOTH SIDES.


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

6)     a) See sections C and D within

            The Death Penalty: Saving More Innocent Lives

        b) Brutalization & The Death Penalty: More Support for the Deterrent Effect

7)     a) DEATH PENALTY DETERRENCE: Rebuttal to Donahue and Wolfers:

         b) "Deterrence & the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock

         c) Death Penalty Deterrence: Defended & Advanced

8)      a) Innocents More At Risk Without Death Penalty

         b) Brutalization & The Death Penalty: More Support for the Deterrent Effect


Victim's Voices - These are the murder victims