Thursday, April 18, 2019

Deterrence, Death Penalties & Executions

Deterrence, Death Penalties & Executions
Dudley Sharp

Nobel Prize Laureate (Economics) 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.” (NY Times, 11/18/07)

"(Becker) is the most important social scientist in the past 50 years (NY Times, 5/5/14)

1) What we know

The deterrent effect of severe sanctions and severe negative incentives has never been negated and cannot be. Execution is the most severe sanction and one of the most severe negative incentives.

The evidence that some are deterred is overwhelming (1). The evidence that none are deterred is non existent (1).

We have undisputed evidence that some have confirmed they were deterred from committing murders because of the threat of the death penalty/executions (1). This is known as individual deterrence. By fact and reason, individual deterrence cannot exist without general deterrence.

If, still, unsure of deterrence, there are these risks:

Absent the death penalty/executions, we risk sacrificing more innocent lives. With the death penalty/executions, we "risk" saving more innocent lives.

Pick your risk.

As a part of deterrence theory, some criminal activity is deterred because the potential criminal is restrained, consciously or subconsciously, based upon a fear of being caught and sanctioned, if they commit the crime.

Do positive and negative incentives affect behavior? Of course . . . with execution being the most severe negative incentive, the most severe sanction and the most feared outcome.

We all know that criminals "case" potential targets for crimes. Criminals are aware of lighting, cameras, witnesses, police presence, prisons, sentences, biological evidence, etc. . . .   risk vs reward. Every time they don't commit a crime, in such a circumstance, it was because they were deterred.

Is there anyone not aware of this?

Police departments are, rarely, targeted for robbery. Obvious.

Everyone knows that if we stopped all law enforcement and sanctions, that crime would escalate, dramatically. There would be no sanction deterrence to crime.

Is that a mystery, to anyone?

2) Studies Finding For Deterrence & Their Critics

Since 1996, there have been at least 24 US based studies, finding for death penalty/execution deterrence (1) finding from 1-28 innocent lives saved per execution, or 33-900 innocents saved/yr (2).

Even with the 900 saved per year, we are looking at "only" a 5% (2) net reduction in innocents murdered, numbers which could disappear in the normal ups and downs of gross murder rates, which occur, every year . . . . but those innocents would still have been saved.

There will never be consensus on the numbers saved, as expected with the "soft" sciences.

The critics of the studies finding for deterrence are not saying none are deterred. They can't.

The critics only offer a difference of opinion, based upon interpretations of methodology (3).

As a general rule, the studies finding for deterrence are more credible than their critics (3) but, even if equal, what remains are two options 1) studies finding for deterrence and 2) critics who cannot and do not negate deterrence.

3) How is death penalty/execution deterrence measured?

As with all criminal sanctions:  Crimes are net lower with law enforcement and sanction than without law enforcement and sanction? It is that basic.

There is no doubt.

4) Life Without Parole vs The Death Penalty

The relevant question, in the national debate, is "Is the death penalty more of a deterrent than life without parole?", with the understanding that both deter some.

We know that nearly 100% of those subject to the death penalty do all they can to get life not death. No, they were not deterred, at least not for those murders.

Why do nearly all subject to the death penalty seek life not death?

Life is preferred over death and death is feared more than life, not just with murderers, but with nearly, all of us, inclusive of potential murderers.

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

There is no doubt.

The death penalty/executions are an enhanced deterrent over a life sentence.

5) Murder rates and the death penalty/executions

It has been clear, for many decades, that death penalty/execution deterrence cannot be measured by murder rates (4).

For example, let's say Iceland and its capital Reykjavik , have the lowest crime and murder rates in the world.  In all other cities and countries, does that mean that no potential criminals are deterred by law enforcement and sanction, because those other jurisdictions  have higher rates? Of course not. It is ridiculous on its face.

Some criminals are deterred by law enforcement and sanction, in Iceland, just as with every other jurisdiction in the world. Some are not. Only a fool says none are deterred.

Death penalty USA has a murder rate of about 5.3/100,000. Non death penalty El Salvador about 80, death penalty Japan and Singapore 0.30, non death penalty Canada 1.7 and on and on.

When New Hampshire had the death penalty, it, consistently, had the lowest murder rates in the US, with fellow death penalty Louisiana, consistently, having the highest murder rates in the US.

Non death penalty Detroit and Baltimore, along with death penalty Memphis and St.Louis, have the highest violent crime rates.

"(death penalty city) Henderson, Nev., takes the No. 2 spot in America's Safest Cities despite its location within the Metropolitan Statistical Area of death penalty Las Vegas-Paradise, which ranked ninth this year on Forbes’ list of America’s Most Dangerous Cities." (5)

That "pattern", with the death penalty or not, with high. medium or low murder and crime rates, is found, in all comparisons of neighborhoods, small towns and cities within states and in comparing states, as well as within and between all countries and regions,  throughout the world.

Everyone is aware.

Texas' murder rate is in about the middle of US states and has a murder rate lower than 6 non death penalty states.

Or pick and choose  . . .


From 1992-2015,  Texas had a near, uninterrupted, period of years with double digit executions, averaging 24 executions per year.  From 1991-2015, Texas' murder rate dropped 69%. (15.3 - 4.8), a difference of  319%. Capital murders may have dropped by 80%. Texas's robbery rate dropped 60% (287 to 116), 1991-2015, a difference of 216%, with robbery/murder the most common death penalty eligible murders.

The United States

From 1965-1980, the US had a, near, complete cessation of executions - 3 total in 16 years - , the murder rate rose 100% (5.1 to 10.2); robbery 354% (71 to 251). Capital murders (robbery/murders) rose dramatically.

From 1992 to 2014 the US had double digit executions, averaging 49 per year - the murder rate dropped 55%  (9.8 - 4.4), 1991-2014, the murder rate 223% higher in 1991 than in 2014; the robbery rate dropped 63% (273 to 101), the robbery rate 270% higher in in 1991 than in 2014.  Capital murders may have dropped 70-80%.

If you looked at crime rates in neighborhoods, zip codes, towns, cities, and counties within each US state or between all the world's countries and their sub jurisdictions, with or without the death penalty, crime and murder rates would be high, low or medium, whether in a death penalty jurisdiction or not.

Why? Because there are many other factors, not just death penalty/execution deterrence, which affect those rates.


In all jurisdictions, there will be net lower crime rates with law enforcement and sanction, than without them. Why? Deterrence.

There is no doubt.

Victims' Voices

1) OF COURSE THE DEATH PENALTY DETERS: A review of the debate
99.7% of murderers tell us "Give me life, not execution"

2) using an average of 18,000 murders per year (1976-2018), with an average of 33 executions per year.

3) DEATH PENALTY DETERRENCE: Rebuttal to Donahue and Wolfers:

Death Penalty Deterrence: Defended & Advanced

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

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

5) "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.