The death penalty: A deterrent to crime?

Several studies taken over the last six years suggest that it does:

What gets little notice, however, is a series of academic studies over the last half-dozen years that claim to settle a once hotly debated argument — whether the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder. The analyses say yes. They count between three and 18 lives that would be saved by the execution of each convicted killer.

The reports have horrified death penalty opponents and several scientists, who vigorously question the data and its implications.

So far, the studies have had little impact on public policy. New Jersey’s commission on the death penalty this year dismissed the body of knowledge on deterrence as “inconclusive.”

But the ferocious argument in academic circles could eventually spread to a wider audience, as it has in the past.

“Science does really draw a conclusion. It did. There is no question about it,” said Naci Mocan, an economics professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. “The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect.”

A 2003 study he co-authored, and a 2006 study that re-examined the data, found that each execution results in five fewer homicides, and commuting a death sentence means five more homicides. “The results are robust, they don’t really go away,” he said. “I oppose the death penalty. But my results show that the death penalty (deters) — what am I going to do, hide them?”

Statistical studies like his are among a dozen papers since 2001 that capital punishment has deterrent effects. They all explore the same basic theory — if the cost of something (be it the purchase of an apple or the act of killing someone) becomes too high, people will change their behavior (forego apples or shy from murder).

To explore the question, they look at executions and homicides, by year and by state or county, trying to tease out the impact of the death penalty on homicides by accounting for other factors, such as unemployment data and per capita income, the probabilities of arrest and conviction, and more.

Read the whole thing.

Even if those studies constituted unquestionable proof that the DP was a deterrent to crime, the moral debate on whether or not the DP is an acceptable punishment, allowable under the Constitution, would still rage on.

I take a look at the molestation and murder of 6 year-old Christopher Michael Barrios as well as the torture, rape, and murders of young Tennessee couple Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom and I wouldn’t feel any moral conflict should their rapists/killers get the DP.

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