The deterrence of crime has been the focal point for criminal justice reform for years. The concept of deterrence is composed of three components; certainty, swiftness and severity (Stohr & Walsh, 2019). The common belief is that fear of punishment, especially capital punishment, is enough to deter rational persons from committing crimes. While this method of punishment may appear to be a convincing claim, the debate over the effectiveness of capital punishment has been under scrutiny for decades. In 1972 the Supreme Court came to the conclusions, “In light of the massive amount of evidence before us, I see no alternative but to conclude that capital punishment cannot be justified on the basis of its deterrent effect. – Justice Marshall, U.S. Supreme Court, Furman v. Georgia, 1972” (Lamperti, 2003).
It is extremely difficult to calculate the effectiveness correctly, multiple attempts at prior research have strategically excluded or neglected crucial phases and information from their reports in order to produce evidence that was in their favor. In addition to the dilemma of miscalculated data, hidden information, etc. researchers are faced with even more obstacles.
An article published in 2009 scrutinizes some of these additional aspects heavily, “There is little clarity about the knowledge potential murderers have concerning the risk of execution: are they influenced by the passage of a death penalty statute, the number of executions in a state, the proportion of murders in a state that leads to an execution, and details about the limited types of murders that are potentially susceptible to a sentence of death? If an execution rate is a viable proxy, should it be calculated using the ratio of last year’s executions to last year’s murders, last year’s executions to the murders a number of years earlier, or some other values?” (Donohoe & Wolfers, 2009). Nevertheless, researchers continue to analyze the data and conduct new studies to finally come to a concrete conclusion and evidence for the argument.
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Examining the relationship between capital punishment and crime is crucial for implementing effective crime control strategies. For example, “if the probability of punishment were high—that is, if a potential offender is highly likely to get caught for drunken driving or running a red light—even moderate punishments seem sufficient to deter the conduct. As the likelihood of punishment declines the deterrent effect soon becomes greatly reduced,” (Robinson, 2002, p. 977). That being said, the justifications for the death penalty may in fact have a deterrent effect on crime. However, capital punishment is a complicated legal process. Furthermore, it is imperative to delineate precisely the question of this research. I am not calling into question whether the concept of deterrence, in general, is efficient; Rather, the purpose of this research is to examine whether capital punishment is a more effective strategy for deterring crime than a long or life prison sentence. (Robinson, 2002).
There has been an abundant amount of research done to prove and disprove the claim that capital punishment is the most effective form of deterrence. These resources include, but are not limited to, statistical recidivism rates compared by states with and without the death penalty, psychological and sociological analysis of offenders and comparisons of the distribution process of the death penalty. These materials along with further examination of the process will expose just how unsuccessful capital punishment is as a deterrent.
Event Dependence in U.S. Executions
This article compares the distribution process of the death penalty between different states and if they have a self-reinforcing process. Baumgartner, Box-Steffensmeier and Campbell attempt to explain the different paths that given states become a part of and how this may infringe on the equal protection clause. Since 1976, the United States has conducted more than 1,400 executions, primarily carried out in scattered cities and states. Typically, the distributions of the death penalty have resulted in self-reinforcing practices, which, in this instance, can be described as an increased chance of observing an event for each previous event.
To conduct these distributions, the researchers engage a simultaneous two-pronged empirical strategy. To begin, they employ a set of tests to confirm that the pattern of executions demonstrates a stretched distribution. Next, Baumgartner, Box-Steffensmeier and Campbell test for event-dependence using the Conditional Frailty Model, “Our tests estimate the monthly hazard of an execution in a given county, accounting for the number of previous executions, homicides, poverty, and population demographics. Controlling for other factors, we find that the number of prior executions in a county increases the probability of the next execution and accelerates its timing. Once a jurisdiction goes down a given path, the path becomes self-reinforcing, causing the counties to separate out into those never executing (the vast majority of counties) and those which use the punishment frequently,” (Baumgartner, Box-Steffensmeier, & Campbell, 2018). The findings of their work calls into question legal and normative concerns, more specifically, regarding the consistency with the equal protection clause. This study suggests one of many inconsistency’s that comprise the failure of deterrence in regards to capital punishment.
Estimating the Impact of the Death Penalty on Murder
In addition to the research by Baumgartner, Box-Steffensmeier, & Campbell, a paper was released in 2009 by, American Law and Economics Review that stands in accord with their work; concurring the lack of evidence to support any concrete deterrent effect is associated with the use of the death penalty. In this article Donohue and Wolfers concentrate on six different studies, published in the last 6 years, inquiring and highlighting the issues faced when attempting to create such data and, additionally, the failures to specify the data/models found. The researchers describe two of the six studies whose results claimed to have identified a positive deterrent effect and discredit the conclusion based on calculation errors; describing the articles as, “unconvincing because they all use a problematic structure based on poorly measured and theoretically inappropriate pseudo-probabilities that are designed to capture the key deterrence elements of a state’s death penalty regime, and because their instruments are of dubious validity.” (Donohoe & Wolfers, 2009).
Donohue and Wolfers illustrate certain aspects that are crucial to consider when attempting to calculate the deterrent effect of a punishment; they show concern regarding the assumptions that were made about the potential offenders knowledge of whether or not their state used the death penalty and if those who have been convicted of murder even knew that their state used capital punishment. Donohue and Wolfers suggest that, not only do the studies falter with the use of implicit assumptions offenders, possible future offenders, etc., additionally, they claim, that any of the estimates of the impact of the death penalty, in the six studies analyzed, “would be biased against a finding of deterrence.” (Donohoe & Wolfers, 2009).
The Deterrent Influence of the Death Penalty (Schuessler, 1952).
Additional research has been conducted in an attempt to calculate how much capital punishment really deters a person from crime. The study focused primarily on the crime of homicide; the researcher, Schuessler, analyzes the sufficiency of the United States statistics used to measure the deterrent effect of the death penalty. The study introduces a theory to explain the previous miscalculations of research and a solution to being able to adequately determine the correlation between the death penalty and deterrence; Schuessler claims, “it is further alleged that the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent depends both on its certain application and on knowledge of this fact in the population; hence, the argument continues, regular use of the death penalty increases its deterrent value,” (Schuessler, 1952, p. 54).
The deterrence of crime has been the focal point for criminal justice reform for years. The common belief is that fear of punishment, especially capital punishment, is enough to deter rational persons from committing crimes. While this method of punishment may appear to be a convincing claim, the purpose of this research is to examine whether capital punishment really is the most effective strategy for deterring crime.
Does the death penalty provide a more efficient deterrent effect than long or life imprisonment? It is difficult to obtain precise empirical evidence for studies regarding deterrence and capital punishment due to many complications. Over the last decade many researchers have tried and failed to create a calculation for the deterrence effect that accounts for every contention. However, of the most recent studies done, the majority have generated a steady pattern of ineffectiveness. That being said, I am not concerned with the concept of the deterrence strategy in general; I am only concerned with the effectiveness of the death penalty on deterrence. To conclude whether or not capital punishment is the most effect form of deterrence, the following hypotheses have been concluded:
H1: States that have abolished the death penalty have a lower crime rate, when considering capital offenses.
H2: The evidence previously conducted either fails to account for every aspect of the calculation necessary and/or apply assumptions as part of the studies’ process, and therefore are not accurate estimates of the impact the death penalty has on deterrence.
For this research, the dependent variable to be used will be whether or not the state has abolished the use of the death penalty. To be defined as a state that has abolished the use of capital punishment, the process must have been made illegal beginning in or before January, 2009; to allow for an adequate amount of time for the social structure to change and the citizens to become aware of the law. Furthermore, the dependent variables to be used in the study will be; first, the state’s crime rate. Crime rate will be defined as capital offenses and it will be measured per 100,000 persons. The second independent variable will be the application of the death penalty in the states that have not abolished executions. Application will be defined as the number of executions per year. The final independent variable will be based on the knowledge of the law in each state by the population. The population is defined as offenders who committed capital crimes. In order to measure this variable, self-administered surveys will be given to the sampling unit, i.e. the inmates.
The following questions will be used in the survey to measure the variable:
- What state are you currently in?
- What prison are you currently in?
- Of what crime or crimes were you convicted?
Prior to your arrest, were you aware that this state uses the death penalty?
- Yes, please answer Question 5
- No, go to Question 7
- Unsure, go to Question 7
Did you know what crimes were punishable by death?
- Yes, (list crimes)
- Unsure, (list possible types of crimes)
Did you know the likelihood of being sentenced to death in this state?
Do you know what deterrence means?
- Yes, go to Question 8
- No, go to Question 9
- Unsure, go to Question 9
Do you believe the death penalty is successful in deterring most crime?
- Yes, (explain)
- No, (explain)
Have you ever seen an execution?
- Yes, (how many times)
Do you agree that there should be a death penalty?
- Yes, (explain)
- No, (explain)
Method and Design
The purpose of this study is to determine the effectiveness of capital punishment. This study will apply qualitative and quantitative research designs, utilizing self-administered surveys, examinations of crime rates, comparisons of applications, and more. In an effort to obtain impartial evidence, systematic random sampling will be used. First, three states that allow capital punishment will be randomly selected and next, three states that have abolished capital punishment will be randomly selected. Next, one prison from each state will be randomly selected. Finally, a random sample of 100 inmates who have been convicted of a capital offense will be selected from each prison to receive the surveys. I will examine the sampling units’ responses to the surveys and use a comparative study to analyze the effects of the answers based on the laws from each state. Additionally, I will compare the previously randomly selected states, three with and three without the use of the death penalty and their crime rates, specifically in regards to capital offenses. As stated previously, the sample group will be based on a random selection of the states and the crime rate will be measured per year and per 100,000 persons in the years since 2009. Furthermore, I will calculate the exact number of executions conducted per year, in the three randomly selected states that have not abolished capital punishment. I will then use a comparative study to evaluate the relationship, if any, between the criminal activity and the application frequency of the punishment.
This research was intended to determine the effectiveness of the death penalty on deterrence. To conclude whether or not capital punishment is the most effect form of deterrence,
The research concluded that previously conducted experiments consistently failed to provide definite evidence to support the use of the death penalty as a deterrent. Multiple researchers neglected to account for each and every aspect of the calculation necessary and/or apply assumptions as part of the studies’ process. Furthermore, this study has concluded, therefore the previously conducted research attempts are not accurate estimates of the impact the death penalty on deterrence. Next, this research attempted to prove that states that have abolished the death penalty have a lower crime rate, when considering capital offenses, than those that still use capital punishment. The evidence concluded that, of the six states randomly selected for the study, the three states that have abolished the death penalty do have a significantly lower capital offenses crime rate.
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Although all research has it’s limitations, I conclude, the discovery of such evidence confirms the hypothesis that the death penalty is not the most effective form of deterrence; whether it be due to the scarcity of application, lack of knowledge, or the psychological understanding that to deter a person from a crime a lesser punishment does suffice. Conclusively, I agree and acknowledge that, “deterrence theory and criminal justice policy hold that punishment enhances compliance and deters future criminal activity,” (Ellsworth & Gross, 1994). Although, the extreme of sentencing one to death does not deter better than a prison sentence.
- Stohr, M. K., & Walsh, A. (2019). Corrections: The essentials (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
- Baumgartner, F. R., Box-Steffensmeier, J., & Campbell, B. W. (2018). Event Dependence in U.S. Executions. PLoS One, 13(1) doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0190244.
- Dezhbakhsh, H., Rubin, P. H., & Shepherd, J. M. (2003). Does Capital Punishment have a Deterrent Effect? New Evidence from Post Moratorium Panel Data. American Law and Economics Review, 5(2), 344-376.
- Schuessler, K. F. (1952). The Deterrent Influence of the Death Penalty. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 284(1), 54-62.
- Robinson, P. H. (2002). The role of deterrence in the formulation of criminal law rules: At its worst when doing its best. Geo. LJ, 91, 949.
- Ellsworth, P. C., & Gross, S. R. (1994). Hardening of the attitudes: Americans’ views on the death penalty. Journal of Social Issues, 50(2), 19-52.)
- Lamperti, J. (2003). Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder? A Brief Look at the Evidence. doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f
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