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Policy Debate: Is the death penalty an efficient crime deterrent?

Issues and Background

The ACLU and other death penalty opponents, including many religious groups and individuals, and a growing number of prison wardens, maintain that capital punishment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Killing, whether carried out by an individual or the state, is immoral and ought not to be condoned. Furthermore, the death penalty as practiced in the U.S., is arbitrary and racially biased. It has no proven deterrent value. And many miscarriages of justice have been documented over the years in which people have been put to death for crimes they did not commit.
~American Civil Liberties Union
I believe that the weight of the evidence--aggregate statistical analyses, evaluations of experiments and quasi-experiments, and studies of individual behavior--supports the view that the rate of crime is influenced by its costs. This influence is greater--or easier to observe- for some crimes and persons than for others.
~James Q. Wilson, "Thinking About Crime: The Debate over Deterrence," The Atlantic Monthly, September 1983

The death penalty has been used as a penalty for severe crimes since the beginning of recorded history. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty laws of 39 states were unconstitutional. This ruling stated that the death penalty provided "cruel and unusual punishment" under existing state statutes. In Gregg v. Georgia (1976), the Supreme Court held that state death penalty laws could be constitutional if these laws provided clear and objective standards under which the death penalty may be applied. Thirty-eight states now have such death penalty laws in effect.

The economic argument in favor of the death penalty is rather simple. Economists assume that individuals weigh the expected costs and benefits when deciding to undertake any activity. Thus, rational individuals considering criminal activities would weigh the expected benefits against the expected cost of the criminal endeavor. The expected cost of any given crime is affected by the probability of being detected, the probability of being convicted given detection, and the expected penalty that results from a conviction. Since the death penalty provides a higher cost than alternative punishments, it is expected to generate a larger deterrent effect, ceteris paribus.

Opponents of the death penalty argue that:

  • those contemplating criminal activities do not rationally weigh the benefits and costs of their actions,
  • the costs associated with obtaining a death penalty conviction are larger than the costs associated with providing lifetime imprisonment,
  • in a world of imperfect information, innocent individuals may be convicted and executed before exonerating information is discovered, and
  • the death penalty has disproportionately been applied in cases in which the defendant is nonwhite or the victim is white.

Those who are convicted of capital crimes frequently have little education and may not possess sufficient information about the probabilities of detection and conviction to rationally calculate the costs and benefits associated with capital offenses. In this case, the deterrent effect may be small or nonexistent. Opponents of the death penalty often argue in support of lifetime imprisonment as an alternative to the death penalty since imprisonment, on average, is less costly and may be reversed if exonerating evidence later becomes available. The use of life imprisonment instead of the death penalty would free resources that could be devoted to more effective methods of crime deterrence. The differential treatment of minorities and low-income individuals under the death penalty raises a number of equity issues.

Recent studies concerning racial bias and wrongful convictions have lead the governors of Maryland and Illinois to introduce a moratorium on the application of the death penalty in their states. The Illinois moratorium began in 2000 while the Maryland moratorium was begun in May 2002. Despite a January 7, 2003 University of Maryland study finding a significant racial bias in the administration of the death penalty, newly elected Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. ended the Maryland moratorium in January 2003.

The debate over the death penalty includes a discussion of a variety of ethical, philosophical, and moral issues as well as economic issues. The online materials described below provide a small sampling of these arguments.


Primary Resources and Data

  • National Criminal Justice Reference Service
    This site, provided by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, contains an extensive collection of links to criminal justice statistics and data, law enforcement information, abstracts of criminal justice related studies, and other criminal justice resources.

  • Bureau of Justice Statistics
    The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics home page contains an extensive collection of criminal justice studies, statistics, and downloadable data sets. Annual reports on the number of and demographic characteristics of those convicted and executed are also provided at this site. At the time that this page was last updated (3/29/03), the most recent available report is for 2001 capital punishment cases. Annual data on U.S. executions from 1930 to 2002 is also provided on this site.

  • Cornell Law School Death Penalty Project
    The Cornell Law School Death Penalty Project provides extensive legal information about the death penalty. This site provides information concerning Supreme Court and Appellate Court cases that involve capital punishment issues, the text of state capital punishment statutes, and links to studies concerning the application of the death penalty.

  • American Bar Association Statement on the Death Penalty
    This document contains the official position of the American Bar Association concerning the death penalty. This document states that the American Bar Association believes that no executions should be carried out in a jurisdiction unless ABA procedures are adopted that are designed to ensure that death penalty cases are "administered fairly and impartially" and that procedures are used that minimize the risk of convicting an innocent person. The Association argues that these procedures should be designed to eliminate discrimination based on the race of either the defendant or the victim and should prohibit capital punishment for those who are mentally retarded or under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.

  • The Oyez Project, Furman v. Georgia
    The Oyez Project at Northwestern University provides an audio version of the verbal arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Furman v. Georgia case as well as a link to the written decision.

  • The Oyez Project, Gregg v. Georgia
    The Oyez Project at Northwestern University provides an audio version of the verbal arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Gregg v. Georgia case. A link to the written decision is also provided.

  • Encyclopedia of Law and Economics, Bibliographic Database - Alternative Sanctions
    The Encyclopedia of Law and Economics provides an extensive bibliography of print journal articles dealing with the death penalty (and other related issues). (The Adobe acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

  • Michigan State University Libraries, "Criminal Justice Resources: Death Penalty"
    This site contains a collection of links to death penalty resources that are available on the internet. Most of the sites listed provide arguments opposed to the death penalty.

  •, "The Death Penalty: Pro and Con" provides this annotated collection of links to death penalty resources.

  •, "Issues and Controversies: Death Penalty"
    This December 29, 1995 article by provides a balanced discussion of the pros and cons of the death penalty. A good discussion of racial disparities is provided on this page.


Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • Death Penalty Information Center
    The Death Penalty Information Center is a nonprofit organization that is opposed to the death penalty. This web site contains an extensive collection of information on:
    • the disparate treatment of minority groups,
    • the frequent discovery of evidence that exonerates those convicted of capital offenses,
    • the high cost associated with death penalty prosecutions, and
    • other arguments that suggest that the costs associated with the use of the death penalty exceed the social benefits.
    The Death Penalty Information Center also provides an online death penalty quiz.

  • American Civil Liberties Union, "Death Penalty"
    This web site contains the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) arguments against the death penalty. Position papers, news about death penalty issues, and links to other resources are available at this site.

  • Amnesty International and the Death Penalty
    Amnesty International opposes the death penalty. This site contains a collection of information supporting this position. Amnesty International notes that many nations have either abolished the death penalty or substantially curtailed its use while the U.S. has expanded the use of the death penalty during the past 20 years.

  • Amnesty International's Death Penalty Quiz
    This site contains two quizzes concerned with death penalty facts and statistics. One quiz deals with U.S. national death penalty cases, the other is devoted to the application of the death penalty in Georgia.

  • Robert Dunham, "Death Penalty and Race: Partners in Injustice"
    This December 10, 2001 article provides an argument for the existence of racial bias in the application of death penalty sentences. Dunham focuses his discussion on Philadelphia, a city that has an exceptionally high proportion of black prisoners on death row. He cites statistics that indicate that racial profiling was used by prosecutors in jury selection.

  • Clark County (Indiana) Prosecuting Attorney, "The Death Penalty"
    This web page contains over 1,000 links to online death penalty web resources. Links are provided to sites that represent both the pro and con sides of this issue.

  • United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, "Country Report for the United States of America, 1998"
    In this 1998 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions discusses the application of the death penalty in the United States. It is argued that victims of the death penalty included "mentally-ill or mentally-handicapped persons and foreign nationals whose rights to consular assistance had been violated."

  • National Center for Policy Analysis, "Does Punishment Deter?"
    In this August 17, 1998 NCPA Policy Backgrounder, the National Center for Policy Analysis reviews earlier studies of the relationship between punishment and crime deterrence. The NCPA notes that empirical evidence suggests that criminal behavior is more responsive to changes in the probability of detection and conviction than to changes in the intensity of punishment. They cite a National Academy of Sciences panel that found that a 50% increase in the probability of incarceration has a deterrent effect that is approximately twice as large as that resulting from a 50% increase in the average jail term. The NCSA notes, though, that both the probability and the severity of punishment affect the magnitude of the deterrent effect.

  • Hugo Adam Bedau, "The Case Against the Death Penalty"
    In this online essay, Hugo Adam Bedau argues that the death penalty:
    • is inconsistently applied,
    • has little deterrent effect because it affects such a small proportion of murderers,
    • has no effect on unpremeditated crime,
    • is no more effective than life imprisonment as a deterrent but is more costly, and
    • encourages violence in society.

  • David D. Friedman, "Rational Criminal and Profit Maximizing Police: Gary Becker's Contribution to the Economic Analysis of Law and Law Enforcement"
    David D. Friedman examines the microeconomic theory of crime deterrence. He notes that society has to balance benefits against costs in determining the optimal level of crime deterrence. The implications of this principle for criminal justice policy are discussed in this essay.

  • Oriskany Central School, "The Economics of Capital Punishment"
    On this web site, the Oriskany Central School in Oriskany, N.Y., provides a discussion of economics of capital punishment in the U.S. They conclude that the death penalty is ineffective and not economical.

  • James Q. Wilson. "Thinking About Crime"
    James Q. Wilson discusses the issue of deterrence in this September 1983 Atlantic Monthly article. He concludes that there is a substantial body of empirical evidence that indicates that deterrence works. Wilson notes that many studies suggest that criminals are aware of differences in the expected penalties over time and across geographical regions and respond to such incentives. The difficulty in reducing crime rates occurs, in part, because criminals do not place a high cost on incarceration (he suggests that some jail time may even enhance a criminal's prestige within the criminal community). A second reason for this is that an increase in penalties results in a greater effort on the part of criminals (and their attorneys) to avoid convictions. This increase in defense activity may diminish the deterrent effect of the higher penalties.

  • Phil Porter, "The Economics of Capital Punishment"
    In this online essay, Phil Porter argues that the death penalty is an inefficient method of deterring crime. He also notes that the death penalty is fallible (a substantial number of innocent people have been convicted), and has historically been applied in a discriminatory manner.

    This web site contains arguments, data, articles, death penalty information, and links to other death penalty resources on the internet.

  •, "Death Penalty and Sentencing Information"
    This online essay provides arguments supporting the death penalty. The author argues that few innocent individuals are convicted under the death penalty. The death penalty both deters crime and incapacitates criminals who have already committed capital offenses. This article also argues that the high cost of death penalty convictions is due to the extensive effort by death penalty opponents in mounting defenses in death penalty cases.

  • American Society of Criminology, "Death Penalty Information and Resources"
    This page contains information explaining the American Society of Criminology's opposition to the death penalty. Links to online death penalty resources are also provided on this site.

  • James Liebman, Jeffrey Fagan, and Valerie West, "A Broken System: Error Rates in Capital Cases, 1973-1995"
    This study, released on June 12, 2000, examines 5760 capital cases and 4578 appeals during the period years 1973 through 1995. They found that over 2/3 of the cases were "seriously flawed." Most cases were overturned on appeal as a result of either incompetent legal assistance or prosecutorial suppression of evidence during the initial trial. (The Adobe acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

  • Raymond Paternoster, Robert Brame, et al., "An Empirical Analysis of Maryland's Death Sentencing System with respect to the Influence of Race and Legal Jurisdiction"
    This January 7, 2003 study finds that the race of both the victim and the defendant play a signficiant role in the decision to apply the death penalty in homicide cases in Maryland between 1978 and 1999. Unlike many earlier studies, this study hold constant the effect of many other mitigating or aggravating factors associated with the crime. This study was commissioned by Governor Parris Glendening in 2000 to investigate the possibility of discriminatory treatment. (The Adobe acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

    Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., however, ended the moratorium in January 2003. On March 19, 2003, a legislative attempt to continue Maryland's death penalty moratorium failed.

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