Wednesday, June 17, 2009


New Study Reveals Lack of Support for Deterrence Effect of the Death Penalty

Yesterday a new study entitled, “Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists,” was published in Northwestern University School of Law’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. The study is authored by Professor Michael Radelet, Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and Traci Lacock, an attorney and Sociology graduate student in Boulder. The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) has a copy of the study on its web site.

The study’s findings include the following:
  • Eighty-eight percent of the country’s top criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide
  • Eighty-seven percent of the expert criminologists believe that abolition of the death penalty would not have any significant effect on murder rates.
  • Seventy-five percent of the respondents agree that “debates about the death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime problems.”

The study surveyed the most pre-eminent criminologists in the country, including: Fellows in the American Society of Criminology; winners of the American Society of Criminology’s prestigious Southerland Award; and recent presidents of the American Society of Criminology. The American Society of Criminology is the top professional organization of criminologists in the world. Respondents were not asked for their personal opinion about the wisdom of the death penalty, but instead, were asked to answer the questions only on the basis of their understandings of the empirical research.

The study concluded: “Our survey indicates that the vast majority of the world’s top criminologists believe that the empirical research has revealed the deterrence hypothesis for a myth … The consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment.”

The murder rates across the nation provide further evidence that the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime. The South carries out 80% of the executions in this country while continuing to have the highest murder rate of the nation's four regions. The Northeast, which has only had 4 executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty, has the lowest murder rate.

What we do know is that states continue to spend millions of dollars that they don't have to maintain death penalty systems which do not deter crime instead of spending those dollars on efforts that actually can prevent violence--such as mental health care, drug treatment, education, and resources for law enforcement. Rather than pouring our money down the black hole of the death penalty, let's get proactive about how we address the root causes of violent crime and actually prevent some of these horrible tragedies from happening at all. One way or the other, we, as a society, must be willing to spend the resources to provide hope and opportunity for those who often have neither. We can either provide those resources when they can still make a difference or after a horrible crime has been committed and it is too late.

The evidence is in. The choice is ours.

Comments :
Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock
Dudley Sharp, contact info below, 6/09

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"). The confusion appears to be the result of what Radelet/Lacock say within the text of their article, as opposed to what the results of the survey actually say.


100% (or 77) of the criminologists agree that the death penalty may deter some. (question 12)

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

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

16 recent studies, inclusive of their defenses (2), find for death penalty deterrence. These studies find executions deter from 4-28 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 by fear of sanction.

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.

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.

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