Does the Death Penalty Really Reduce Crime?

Associated Press reporter Robert Tanner writes an article today stating that evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the death penalty reduces crime. As with most media coverage of controversial issues, there is a paragraph or two in which the other side makes its case. In this instance, the lone voice arguing against the efficacy of the death penalty is Justin Wolfers, a professor at Wharton who just can’t seem to keep his name out of our blog. Tanner does his best to make Wolfers look bad, quoting him as dismissing these studies because they appear in “second-tier journals.”

Given the evidence I’ve examined, I believe that Wolfers is on the right side of this debate. There are recent studies of the death penalty — most bad, but some reasonable — that find it has a deterrent effect on crime. Wolfers and John Donohue published an article in the Stanford Law Review two years ago that decimated most of the research on the subject.

Analyses of data stretching farther back in time, when there were many more executions and thus more opportunities to test the hypothesis, are far less charitable to death penalty advocates. On top of that, as we wrote in Freakonomics, if you do back-of-the-envelope calculations, it becomes clear that no rational criminal should be deterred by the death penalty, since the punishment is too distant and too unlikely to merit much attention. As such, economists who argue that the death penalty works are put in the uncomfortable position of having to argue that criminals are irrationally overreacting when they are deterred by it.

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  1. lermit says:

    It has a marginal effect on the world population, that’s for sure.

    .lermit

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  2. lermit says:

    It has a marginal effect on the world population, that’s for sure.

    .lermit

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  3. TheBigDuck says:

    I really don’t think any criminal commits a crime thinking that they will be caught.

    My daughter asked me what would happen she stole an ice cream from the ice store we were in.

    I explained to her that she would be arrested and have to spend a few hours (or more) in the Police Station.

    It would be more economically viable to WORK for an hour for the ice cream store (at minimum wage), then buy the ice cream and still have change left over.

    The economics of armed bank robbery are equally interesting (average take, chance of being caught, cost of capture).

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  4. TheBigDuck says:

    I really don’t think any criminal commits a crime thinking that they will be caught.

    My daughter asked me what would happen she stole an ice cream from the ice store we were in.

    I explained to her that she would be arrested and have to spend a few hours (or more) in the Police Station.

    It would be more economically viable to WORK for an hour for the ice cream store (at minimum wage), then buy the ice cream and still have change left over.

    The economics of armed bank robbery are equally interesting (average take, chance of being caught, cost of capture).

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  5. 711buddha says:

    You are confusing deterrent with reduction and statistics with parameters.

    We know that some criminals are repeat offenders. We also know that with the death penalty recidivism is zero.

    You don’t need a PhD to do that math. The death penalty, regardless of deterrent value, reduces crime, specifically it eliminates repeat offense in the specific cases in which its applied.

    Disclosure – My personal convictions are that I oppose the death penealty because of the inquitable way its applied. I’m OK with the principle, but I don’t think the problems can every be addressed well enough to support an implementation. So I don’t even know if that makes me for or against.

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    • David says:

      You are right, you do not need to have a PhD to do the math. The recidivism rate of capital punishment is obviously zero. However, the alternative to a capital punishment conviction is *life without parole* which presents a recidivism rate of, also, zero as it is impossible to commit crimes to general population within prison. Zero is, of course, zero. No PhD required.

      Cheers.

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  6. 711buddha says:

    You are confusing deterrent with reduction and statistics with parameters.

    We know that some criminals are repeat offenders. We also know that with the death penalty recidivism is zero.

    You don’t need a PhD to do that math. The death penalty, regardless of deterrent value, reduces crime, specifically it eliminates repeat offense in the specific cases in which its applied.

    Disclosure – My personal convictions are that I oppose the death penealty because of the inquitable way its applied. I’m OK with the principle, but I don’t think the problems can every be addressed well enough to support an implementation. So I don’t even know if that makes me for or against.

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  7. freakcomment says:

    People confuse the justice system with a need to create crime prevention, and while it has that capability as actions have consequences, the main goal of the justice system is punishment. The death penalty is not there purely as a deterrent, it is there as a punishment and the evaluation of it should be based on its primary purpose and not ancillary outcomes. It doesn’t matter if it is successful or not as a deterrent as long as the victim’s families believe it is successful as a punishment.

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  8. freakcomment says:

    People confuse the justice system with a need to create crime prevention, and while it has that capability as actions have consequences, the main goal of the justice system is punishment. The death penalty is not there purely as a deterrent, it is there as a punishment and the evaluation of it should be based on its primary purpose and not ancillary outcomes. It doesn’t matter if it is successful or not as a deterrent as long as the victim’s families believe it is successful as a punishment.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0