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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.