The Myth of Deterrence

“The question of the supposed deterrent effect of capital punishment is perhaps the single most studied issue in the social sciences. The results are as unanimous as scholarly studies can be in finding the death penalty not to be a deterrent.” -Professor Eric M. Freedman

If someone in a rage with a deadly weapon will be deterred from doing harm, the prospect of actual long-term imprisonment is at least as persuasive as the remote chance of getting executed.1 The truth is that the death penalty does not deter heinous acts of irrational violence; and the facts reflect this:

As a group, states without the death penalty have consistently lower murder rates than states with the death penalty. If the death penalty deterred crime, one would expect that those jurisdictions which impose the death penalty would enjoy lower homicide rates; yet eighteen of the 20 states with the highest murder rates have and use the death penalty. Seventeen of the nation’s 20 big cities with the highest murder rates are in death penalty jurisdictions.

Adjacent state comparisons reveal that states without the death penalty usually have a lower murder rate than neighboring states with the death penalty.2 And adjacent state comparison research has convinced most criminologists that there is no valid link between capital punishment and homicide rates.3

North Dakota, Montana’s neighbor without the death penalty, routinely benefits from lower homicide rates per capita than Montana. 4

Death Penalty Useless in Montana

Recent research shows that executions have had no effect on the amount of murders in Montana. In 2004, Economist Joanna M. Shepherd determined that executions have no effect on murders in Montana in her paper, “Deterrence Versus Brutalization: Capital Punishment’s Differing Impacts Among States”.5

Police Agree: Death Penalty Ineffective

Even Police officers do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent. A 1995 poll of the nation’s police chiefs revealed that the police do not believe the death penalty is effective in fighting crime, and most said it is not an effective law enforcement tool.6 And a 1995 poll by the National League of Cities placed the death penalty last in a long list of measures most likely to reduce crimes.7

Death Penalty Can Backfire

In some cases, the death penalty may even be a rare incitement to criminal behavior.8

  • Immediate impact studies that compare the homicide rates following a highly publicized execution have found no decrease in murders directly after the execution and actually found that the murder rate increased.9

Focus on Death Penalty Draws Attention and Scarce Resources from Real Crime Prevention Measures

A study by the Death Penalty Information Center found that as executions rose through the late 1990’s, states without the death penalty fared much better in reducing their murder rates. Perhaps this was because states without the death penalty are not needlessly diverting their attention and resources from other, proven crime prevention measures.

  • A Dartmouth study found that death penalty trials are very costly relative to county budgets, and that the costs are borne primarily by increasing taxes and decreasing expenditures on police, highways, and other critical services.10
  • The death penalty system costs significantly more than a system where life without parole was the maximum penalty for murder. This has been proven in every state that has studied the cost of its death penalty including New York, New Jersey, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Texas, Florida, and California.

1. Bedau, Case Against the Death Penalty
2. Sorenson, 1999; Baily, 1998, Cochran, 1994; Bureau of Justice Statistics, FBI Uniform Crime Statistics
3. Radelet, Akers
4. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003; FBI Uniform Crime Statistics, 2005
5. September, 2004
6. Hart Research Associates Poll
7. State of American Cities, 1/1995
8. 8. Bedau, Kurtis
9. Dann, 1935; Thompson, 1999
10. Baicker, “The Budgetary Repercussions of Capital Convictions,” Dartmouth University, July 2001