STUDIES: Researchers Find "No Empirical Support" for Deterrence Theory

Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas recently published a study on whether executions deter homicides using state panel date and employing well-known econometric procedures for panel analysis. The authors found "no empirical support for the argument that the existence or application of the death penalty deters prospective offenders from committing homicide."  The study was published in the journal of Criminology and Public Policy and authored by Tomislav V. Kovandzic, Lynne M. Vieraitis and Denise Paquette Boots, all professors of criminology.  The study concluded, "In sum, our finding of no deterrent effect of the DP (death penalty) on homicide suggests the risk of execution does not enhance the level of deterrence. Therefore, we conclude that although policy makers and the public may continue to support the use of the death penalty based on retribution, religious grounds, or other justifications, defending its use based on deterrence is inconsistent with our findings. At a minimum, policy makers should refrain from justifying its use by claiming that it is a deterrent to homicide and explore less costly, more effective ways of addressing crime."

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NEW VOICES: Washington State Law Enforcement Officials Express Doubts About Death Penalty

Walla Walla County (Washington) Sheriff Mike Humphreys said the death penalty does not deter homicides, and it may be time for the public to reconsider the law: "At the time, (perpetrators do not) think about [the death penalty]. They don't believe they're going to get caught. And if they do get caught, there are a lot of court proceedings making it likely (execution is) not going to happen. . . . It's costing us this much money. Let the people make that decision," he said. Humphreys agreed with a recent (Death Penalty Information Center) survey of police chiefs who rated reducing drug abuse as a better way of reducing crime. "If we're going to reduce the drug abuse, we're going to reduce all crimes. From theft to murder," he said.  Police Chief Chuck Fulton agreed with Humphreys that the death penalty is not a deterrent and would prefer to see the practice abolished through legislation. Fulton said the death penalty creates more victims and the system results in a "'carnival atmosphere' that adversely affects penitentiary workers, law enforcement officers responsible for maintaining security, and every one else involved." He said he understands the anger toward those who commit murder but doubts that the death penalty is the answer for society.

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DPIC Releases New Report on Costs of the Death Penalty and Police Chiefs' Views

The Death Penalty Information Center has released its latest report, "Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis." The report combines an analysis of the costs of the death penalty with a newly released national poll of police chiefs who put capital punishment at the bottom of their law enforcement priorities.

Click here to read the report.
Click here to read DPIC's press release.
Click here for the Executive Summary of the report.

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STUDIES: FBI Uniform Crime Report Finds Murder Rates Declined in 2008

The annual crime report released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed a decline in the national murder rate.  The rate dropped 4.7% in 2008 compared to 2007. Despite a regional decline, the South still has the highest murder rate among the four geographic regions: 6.6 murders per 100,000 people, higher than the national rate of 5.4. The Northeast still maintains the lowest murder rate at 4.2. There were 16,272 murders or non-negligent manslaughters in 2008, according to the report.  (FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2008 (published Sept. 2009)). The South has accounted for over 80% of executions since 1976 (971 of 1176 executions), while the Northeast accounted for less than 1% (4 of 1176).  Of the 20 states with the highest murder rates in the country, all of them had the death penalty in 2008.

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OPINION: San Francisco Chronicle Addresses "The High Cost of Vengeance"

John Diaz, the editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, recently questioned the wisdom of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the death penalty in California. Diaz pointed to the enormous expense of maintaining capital punishment in the state: "Today, California has nearly 700 inmates on death row, more than any other state, with their cases in varying levels of appeal. The housing of an inmate on death row is more than triple the $40,000 annual cost of incarcerating others. This state is contemplating a new, $400 million death row. And none of this includes the legal bills for the trials and appeals that are - by constitutional right - more exhaustive in capital cases."  He called for an open debate, “At some point, California needs to have a forthright debate about the cost and efficacy of the death penalty. That moment,” he wrote alluding to upcoming elections, “maybe coming in 2010.” He noted that executions are too rare in California to be a plausible deterrent.  The percentage of Californians who believe the death penalty is a deterrent has dropped from 79% to 44% in the last twenty years.

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Murders Drop in New Jersey Following Moratorium and Abolition of Death Penalty

The number of murders in New Jersey declined 24% in the first six months of 2009 compared to the same period last year.  Murders declined in 2008, the year after the state abolished the death penalty, marking the first time since 1999 that New Jersey has seen a drop in murders for two consecutive years.  Murders dropped 11% in 2007, the year following a state-imposed moratorium on executions, which was instituted in 2006. Governor Jon Corzine, who signed the bill abolishing the death penalty, was encouraged by the statistics and attributed the decline to aggressive crime-fighting measures: "The release of these crime report statistics shows that we are winning important battles in the war against violent criminals and gangs," said the Governor. "Thanks to the efforts of Attorney General Milgram and the New Jersey law enforcement community, county task forces, police departments, and partner agencies, more than  4,200 offenders have been arrested for crimes including murder, assault with a firearm, armed robbery, and gun and drug trafficking. We know more work remains.  Even one act of violence against a New Jersey citizen is one too many."

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Study: 88% of criminologists do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent

A recent study by Professor Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock of the University of Colorado found that 88% of the nation’s leading criminologists do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime. The study, Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists, published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Crimonology, concluded, “There is overwhelming consensus among America’s top criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question fails to support the threat or use of the death penalty.” A previous study in 1996 had come to similar conclusions.


The criminologists surveyed included - 1) Fellows in the American Society of Criminology (ASC), (2) Winners of  the ASC’s Sutherland Award, the highest award given by that organization for contributions to criminological theory, or (3) Presidents of the ASC between 1997 and the present. Those presidents before 1997 had been included in the prior survey. Respondents were asked to base their answers on existing empirical research, not their views on capital punishment.

Nearly 78% of those surveyed said that having the death penalty in a state does not lower the murder rate. In addition, 91% of respondents said politicians support the death penalty in order to appear tough on crime – and 75% said that it distracts legislatures on the state and national level from focusing on real solutions to crime problems. Over all, 94% agreed that there was little emperical evidence to support the deterrent effect of the death penalty. And 90% said the death penalty had little effect overall on the committing of murder. Additionally, 91.6% said that increasing the frequency of executions would not add a deterrent effect, and 87.6% said that speeding up executions wouldn't work either.

Public opinion also reflects these findings. In a 2006 Gallup Poll,  only 34% of respondents agreed that “the death penalty acts as a deterrent to the commitment of murder, that it lowers the murder rate.” In 2004, 62% of people said the death penalty was not a deterrent. By contrast, in 1985, 62% believed the death penalty acted as a deterrent to murder.

(Source: M. Radelet & T. Lacock, "Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists," 99 Journal of Criminal Law & Crimonology 489, Northwestern University (2009)).

See DPIC's Deterrence page.

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NEW VOICES: Experts Find Little Benefit to Justify California's Expensive Death Penalty

Two experts in criminology challenged the rationale for California's high spending on the death penalty in a recent op-ed in the Contra Costa Times. Michael Radelet, chair of the Sociology Department at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and Werner Einstadter, professor emeritus of criminology and sociology at Eastern Michigan University, contrasted California’s multi-million dollar spending on capital punishment with the lack of any deterrent effect. Especially in a time of severe economic crisis, the authors maintained, it makes little sense to spend exorbitant sums on a program that produces nothing in return. They pointed to a recent survey of leading criminologists that concluded that the death penalty fails as a deterrent.  The survey, published as “Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists,” found that  87% of the nation's experts believe that capital punishment could be abolished without any adverse effect on the murder rate.  The study may be read here and the full op-ed by Radelet and Einstadter may be read below.

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STUDIES: Majority of Leading Criminologists Find Death Penalty Does Not Deter Murder

Eighty-eight percent of the country’s top criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide, according to a new study published on June 16 in the Northwestern University School of Law’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.  The study was authored by Professor Michael Radelet, Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and graduate student Traci Lacock.  Their article, “Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists,” is based on a survey of the pre-eminent criminologists in the country.  The research did not ask about the respondents' personal views on the death penalty, but only their views of deterrence based on empirical evidence.  Eighty-seven percent of the expert criminologists believed that abolition of the death penalty would not have any significant effect on murder rates.  The authors concluded, “Our survey indicates that the vast majority of the world’s top criminologists believe that the empirical research has revealed the deterrence hypothesis for a myth … [T]he consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment.” Read the study here and the DPIC's press release here

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NEW VOICES: Montana Prosecutor Says Death Penalty Doesn't Keep Correctional Officers Safe

John Connor, who served as chief special prosecutor in Montana for 21 years and who prosecuted five prison homicide cases, is now calling for the repeal of Montana’s death penalty.  Connor originally believed that the death penalty was needed to keep correctional officers safe from inmates serving life in prison without parole.  But through his experience he found, “The reality is that the death penalty is not, and never has been, a deterrent. Prison safety depends on proper staffing, equipment, resources and training. Certainly the money spent on trying to put someone to death for over 20 years could find better use in addressing those practical needs of our correctional system.”

Connor praised the work of state correctional officers and said, "I would never advocate for repealing the penalty if I thought it placed our correctional personnel at risk. During the years I prosecuted cases of violence in the prison, I learned to greatly admire and respect the dedicated corrections professionals that care for and manage the inmate population . . . But the best way to protect our correctional professionals is to recognize the need for a well-trained staff, for the commitment of adequate resources to operate the institutions safely, and for innovative management incentives that serve to reduce the opportunity for prison violence."

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