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.


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



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).


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.


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.


who cares?

how much does it cost to keep a murderer in prison for a lifetime? who pays that bill?

a good murderer is a dead murderer.


I have read the Freakonomics work and find it much more convincing the the AP article. However, as a layperson, I didn't find the AP article to be biased.

I wish the article had quoted the statistics for global use of the death penalty, or pointed out that few countries outside of the United States allow executions of those under 21 years old.

From:UN Chronicle,
"Of all known executions in 2003, 84 per cent took place in four countries: at least 726 people in China, 108 in Iran, 65 in the United States and 64 in Viet Nam. However, Amnesty International believes the figure for China to be much higher."



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.

It doesn't reduce crime if the criminal is otherwise sentenced to life in prison with no parole. At least in this context, I think we're only considering crimes that are perpetrated outside a prison.


a good murderer is a dead murderer.

Maybe, maybe not, but this assumes that the system is 100% accurate with convictions. As many different studies have shown, this is not the case. Which is worse- not killing a murderer, or killing an innocent?


#2 TheBigDuck:

Did she steal the icecream at the end ?


Forgetting the deterrent effect, what about the bargaining-chip effect?

For instance, Gary Ridgeway, "Green River Killer" in Washington State, could have fought the charges against him, and would have had a chance of being found innocent.

However, If found guilty in court he faced the death penalty. So instead, he made a bargain where he gave a full confession in exchange for the prosecuters not asking for the death penalty.

He'll be locked up for the rest of his life, but without the death penalty on the books he never would have had motivation to confess.


Death penalty offenses don't seem like the kind of thing a person does with any thought about the chances of being caught. It seems like the penalty is the last thing on their mind.

Things that increase the perception that they may be caught rather than the penalty they receive if they're caught seem like they have the potential to be greater deterrents.


This reminds me of the superfriends ethos- at the end of an episode, robin would wanna kill lex, but batman would forbid it, claiming that then they would be no better than he- I agree with freakcomment that the death penalty is revenge, and as such is too base for a progressive justice system- which is why we're ironically lumped with an axis of evil: China, Iran, and Vietnam


I don't want to get bogged down in the politics of the death penalty, but something I found very interesting is the time differential that Dr. Steven and (honorary)Dr. Stephen used it the book.
I don't recall from Gary Becker's paper (I think it was his paper; it's been a couple of years...) very well, but I think he only concerned himself with the severity of the punishment and the liklihood of getting caught when he wrote about deterence.
Perhaps another factor should be added to his research; a "time-gap" between the crime and the punishment...


What if we shot murderers out of a cannon into the closest ocean? It would a ton of fun to watch and I think even the murderers would enjoy that as a means of execution over injection et all.


Clearly if capital punishment isn't working then we need more capital punishment. This thinking has worked for guns. And in a diabolical reversal of logic, it's also worked for lower taxes.

In fact, Texas just made it a capital offense to be convicted twice of rape to someone under the age of 14 if the rapist used a weapon, bodily harm or kidnapping.

I dare anyone to argue with that. See? This capital punishment thing isn't so hard. Not to a Texan.

This is why Texans make good leaders.


...oh...and I'll vote for furiousball's solution. He MUST be a Texan.


That criticism of the death penalty is equally applicable to the entire CJ system, which, as #4 pointed out, exists to punish rather than deter or reduce. A system actually designed to reduce crime would combine aspects of community policing with a mental health system and indeterminite sentencing.

Both my direct and indirect experience leads me to conclude that no threat of punishment has the slightest chance of having any effect on street crime, particularly violent crime, because the entire enterprise is steeped in irrationality from start to finish. The unifying characteristics among violent inmates are poor impluse control and inability to extrapolate consequenses. These are the characteristics of multi-generational poverty, only more pronounced.

I remember an film we watched; the offender recounted beating and stealing a car from a pregnant woman. There was no forethought, no contemplation of outcomes. He was walking down the street, saw a woman getting into a car, and decided he was tired of walking. End of subject. He, of course, had grown up in a series of motel rooms where his mother had turned tricks and sold crack.

So, we have two options:
1.) Put these people through extensive therapy.
2.) Warehouse them until age makes them harmless.

As #5 pointed out, the death penalty can be a version of option 2, but given (a) that it's more expensive than life in prison and (b) the false conviction rate is already unacceptably high, I don't consider this a viable option.



There are no easy answers to this thorny question - no amount of studies or analysis provide the solution. In the end, it's a judgment call that one or other legal system puts in place and there's no winner either way. In Europe, it is mostly considered unenlightened to be in favour of the death penalty. But paying for lifetime imprisonment hardly seems like the society gets the benefit of the doubt. And, when you consider some people get multiple life prison sentences (when a life isn't even a lifetime), you end up thinking the death penalty is definitely a propos at least on occasion. If it weren't for the clumsy justice system, then I know I'd have less difficulty in having conviction in the death penalty.


There are no easy answers to this thorny question

This one quote so clearly defines the difference between a Yankee and a Texan.


Only because of the very nature of this article am I being so nitpicky:

The term "decimated" meaning literally to "destroy every tenth" was a method of arbitrary execution of every tenth in retaliation for a crime without a perpetrator to be found.

So to say that the paper "decimated" the research isn't very convincing and the fact that you used "decimated most" is even worse because then not quite 10% of the pro-capital punishment research was obsolesced.


Response to #17: I'm having trouble with your "no easy answers" form of equivocation. To begin with, society does not need the benefit of the doubt, it's got all the power to begin with: police, prosecutors, prisons. The accused has an underpaid public defender.

Moreover, public safety is easy to ensure without executing anyone. Life without parole is possible, and leaves the door open to retrial if new evidance comes to light. Besides which, even the most violent people become generally harmless after age 50.

Lastly, we have statistics and studies available. Throwing up your hands and calling it a "judgement call" is to leave it in the hands of prosecutors, who are heavily incented to maximize sentencing in all cases. Police used this same "professional judgement" dodge to justify high-speed chases; staring down decades of research by the BJS. The tide is turning on that one finally.