Death Penalty and Deterrence
Death Penalty and
Deterrence: Let's be clear
by Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, 0104
In their story, "States With No Death Penalty Share Lower Homicide Rates", The
New York Times did their best to illustrate that the death penalty was not a
deterrent, by showing that the average murder rate in death penalty states was
higher than the average rate in non death penalty states and, it is. (1)
What the Times failed to observe is that their own study confirmed that you
can't simply compare those averages to make that determination regarding
As one observer stated: "The Times story does nothing more than repeat the
dumbest of all dumb mistakes — taking the murder rate in a traditionally
high-homicide state with capital punishment (like Texas) and comparing it to a
traditionally low-homicide state with no death penalty (like North Dakota) and
concluding that the death penalty doesn't work at all. Even this comparison
doesn't work so well. The Times own graph shows Texas, where murder rates were
40 percent above Michigan's in 1991, has now fallen below Michigan . . .". (2)
Within the Times article, Michigan Governor John Engler states, "I think
Michigan made a wise decision 150 years ago," referring to the state's abolition
of the death penalty in 1846. "We're pretty proud of the fact that
we don't have the death penalty."(3)
Even though easily observed on the Times' own graphics, they failed to mention
the obvious. Michigan's murder rate is near or above that of 31 of the US's 38
death penalty states. And then, it should be recognized that Washington, DC (not
found within the Times study) and Detroit, Michigan, two non death penalty
jurisdictions, have been perennial leaders in murder and violent crime rates for
the past 30 years. Delaware, a jurisdiction similar in size to them, leads the
nation in executions per murder, but has significantly lower rates of murders
and violent crime than do either DC or Detroit, during that same period.
Obviously, the Times study and any other simple comparison of jurisdictions with
and without the death penalty, means little, with regard to deterrence.
Also revealed within the Times study, but not pointed out by them,: "One-third
of the nation's executions take place in Texas—and the steepest decline in
homicides has occurred in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas, which
together account for nearly half the nation's executions." (4)
And, the Times also failed to mention that the major US jurisdiction with the
most executions is Harris County (Houston, Texas), which has seen a 73% decrease
in murder rates since resuming executions in 1982 -- possibly the largest
reduction for a major metropolitan area since that time.
Also omitted from the Times review, although they had the data, is that during a
virtual cessation of executions, from 1966-1980, that murders more than doubled
in the US. Any other rise and fall in murders, after that time, has been only a
fraction of that change, indicating a strong and direct correlation between the
lack of executions and the dramatic increase in murders, if that is specifically
what you are looking for.
If deterrence was measured by direct correlation's between execution, or the
lack thereof, and murder rates, as implied by the Times article, and as wrongly
assumed by those blindly accepting that model, then there would be no debate,
only more confusion. Which may have been the Times goal.
Let's take a look at the science.
Some non death penalty jurisdictions, such as South Africa and Mexico lead the
world in murder and violent crime rates. But then some non death penalty
jurisdictions, such as Sweden, have quite low rates. Then there are such death
penalty jurisdictions as Japan and Singapore which have low rates of such crime.
But then other death penalty jurisdictions, such as Rwanda and Louisiana, that
have high rates.
To which an astute observer will respond: But socially, culturally,
geographically, legally, historically and many other ways, all of those
jurisdictions are very different. Exactly, a simple comparison of only execution
rates and murder rates cannot tell the tale of deterrence. And within the US,
between states, there exist many variables which will effect the rates of
And, as so well illustrated by the Times graphics, a non death penalty state,
such as Michigan has high murder rates and another non death penalty state, such
as North Dakota, has low murder rates and then there are death penalty states,
such as Louisiana, with high murder rates and death penalty states, such South
Dakota, with low rates. Apparently, unbeknownst to the Times, but quite obvious
to any neutral observer, there are other factors at play here, not just the
presence or absence of the death penalty. Most thinking folks already knew that.
As Economics Professor Ehrlich stated in the Times piece and, as accepted by all
knowledgeable parties, there are many factors involved in such evaluations. That
is why there is a wide variation of crime rates both within and between some
death penalty and non death penalty jurisdictions, and small variations within
and between others. Any direct comparison of only execution rates and only
murder rates, to determine deterrence, would reflect either ignorance or
Ehrlich called the Times study "a throwback to the vintage 1960s statistical
analyses done by criminologists who compared murder rates in neighboring states
where capital punishment was either legal or illegal." "The statistics involved
in such comparisons have long been recognized as devoid of scientific merit." He
called the Times story a "one sided affair" devoid of merit. Most interesting is
that Ehrlich was interviewed by the Time's writer, Fessenden, who asked Ehrlich
to comment on the results before the story was published. Somehow Ehrlich's
overwhelming criticisms were left out of the article.
Ehrlich also referred Fessenden to some professors who produced the recently
released Emory study. Emory Economics department head, Prof. Deshbakhsh "says he
was contacted by Fessenden, and he indicated to the Times reporter that the
study suggested a very strong deterrent effect of capital punishment." Somehow,
Fessenden's left that out of the Times story, as well. (5).
There is a constant within all jurisdictions -- negative consequences will
always have an effect on behavior.
copyright 2000-2005 Dudley Sharp
1) "States With No Death Penalty Share Lower Homicide Rates", The New
York Times 9/22/00 located at
2) “Don't Know Much About Calculus: The (New York) Times flunks high-school
math in death-penalty piece", William Tucker, National Review, 9/22/00, located
3) ibid, see footnote 11
4) "The Death Penalty Saves Lives", AIM Report, August 2000, located atwww.aim.org/publications/aim_report/2000/08a.html
15) "NEW YORK TIMES UNDER FIRE AGAIN", Accuracy in Media, 10/16/00, go to
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, 713-622-5491,
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