Death penalty as moral duty?

When I went to law school, my criminology lecturer Gordon Hawkins taught us that research clearly showed that the death penalty had no measurable deterrent effect on murder/crime rates. But I recall thinking at the time that the evidence he cited didn’t sound all that compelling. It consisted mostly of anecdotes about how the incidence of pickpocketing in 18th century England was highest at Newgate among crowds watching convicted pickpockets being hung. A colourful story, I thought, but hardly enough to ground a scientific conclusion about the deterrent efficacy of a particular punishment.

Now a recent article (so far unpublished but downloadable from SSRN) by noted US legal academics Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule suggests that my youthful intuition might have been correct. Sunstein and Vermeule make the somewhat startling claim that governments may be under a moral duty to legislate for the death penalty! Before simply dismissing this as yet another piece of fascistic nonsense on a par with the recent pseudo-academic apologia for torture by Australia’s Mirko Bagaric and Julie Clarke, readers would be well advised to note that Sunstein and Vermeule’s article is strongly based in a series of econometric studies of US crime figures (not that economists are necessarily any more immune from writing egregious nonsense than lawyers):

For many years, the deterrent effect of capital punishment was sharply disputed. But a great deal of recent evidence strengthens the claim that capital punishment has large deterrent effects. The reason for the shift is that a wave of sophisticated econometric studies have exploited a newly-available form of data, so-called “panel data” that uses all information from a set of units (states or counties) and follows that data over an extended period of time. A leading study [by Dezhbakhsh et al] used county-level panel data from 3,054 U.S. counties between 1977 and 1996. The authors find that the murder rate is significantly reduced by both death sentences and executions. The most striking finding is that on average, each execution results in 18 fewer murders.

Other econometric studies also find a substantial deterrent effect. In two papers, Paul Zimmerman uses state-level panel data from 1978 onwards to measure the deterrent effect of execution rates and execution methods. He estimates that each execution deters an average of fourteen murders. Using state-level data from 1977 to 1997, Mocan and Gittings find that each execution deters five murders on average. They also find that increases in the murder rate come from removing people from death row and also from commutations in death sentences. Yet another study, based on state-level data from 1997- 1999, finds that a death sentence deters 4.5 murders and an execution deters three murders. The same study investigates the question whether executions deter crimes of passion and murders by intimates. The answer is clear: these categories of murder are deterred by capital punishment. The deterrent effect of the death penalty is also found to be a function of the length of waits on death row, with a murder deterred for every 2.75 years of reduction in the period before execution.

As a result of these studies, Sunsten and Vermeule argue:

If the current evidence is even roughly correct, then a refusal to impose capital punishment will effectively condemn numerous innocent people to death. States that choose life imprisonment, when they might choose capital punishment, are ensuring the deaths of a large number of innocent people. On moral grounds, a choice that effectively condemns large numbers of people to death seems objectionable to say the least. For those who are inclined to be skeptical of capital punishment for moral reasons¢â¬âa group that includes one of the current authors¢â¬âthe task is to consider the possibility that the failure to impose capital punishment is, prima facie and all things considered, a serious moral wrong. …

As an empirical matter, criminal law is pervaded by its own risk-risk tradeoffs. If the deterrent signal works, a failure to impose stringent penalties on certain crimes will increase the number of those crimes. A refusal to impose such penalties is, for that reason, problematic from the moral point of view. The very idea of “equal protection of the laws,” in its oldest and most literal sense, attests to the importance of enforcing the criminal and civil law so as to safeguard the potential victims of private violence. What we are suggesting is that the death penalty produces a risk-risk tradeoff of its own, indeed what we will call a life-life tradeoff, to the extent that a refusal to impose capital punishment yields a significant increase in the number of deaths of innocent people.

Of course this point does not resolve the capital punishment debate. By itself, the act of execution may be a wrong, in a way that cannot be said for an act of imposing civil or criminal penalties on (say) environmental degradation. But the existence of life-life tradeoffs raises the possibility that for those who oppose killing, a rejection of capital punishment is not necessarily mandated. On the contrary, it may well be morally compelled. At the very least, those who object to capital punishment, and do so in the name of protecting life, must come to terms with the fact that the failure to inflict capital punishment might fail to protect life¢â¬âand must, in our view, justify their position in ways that do not rely on question-begging claims about the distinction between acts and omissions.

I have always opposed the death penalty on a range of grounds, including fundamental moral ones as well as utilitarian calculations about deterrence and the like. But perhaps it isn’t an overwhelmingly obvious moral conclusion that legalised cold-blooded killing of another human being should be regarded as fundamentally morally abhorrent and always wrong, if by failing to impose the death penalty we condemn 18 (or even 5) innocent if anonymous people to death.

The other argument against the death penalty that I have always seen as persuasive lies in its irreversibility: what if we’re wrong and the convicted person was really innocent (e.g. Lindy Chamberlain)? Then there’s the sometime arbitrariness of imposition of the death penalty, not to mention American evidence of a racial bias: blacks are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death. But Sunstein and Vermeule also have an answer to this argument:

Once the act-omission distinction is no longer central, it becomes clear that the standard moral objections to capital punishment apply even more powerfully to the murders that capital punishment prevents. Those murders also cause irreversible deaths: the deaths of the victims of murder. Private murders are also often highly arbitrary, involving selectivity on any number of morally irrelevant or objectionable grounds. African-Americans, for example, are far more likely than other groups to be the victims of murder. In 2003, 48% of murder victims were white and 48% were African-American¢â¬âmeaning that the racial disparity in the probability of becoming a murder victim is even greater than the racial disparity in the probability of ending up on death row. An important corollary is that the benefits of capital punishment, to the extent that it operates as a powerful deterrent of murder, are likely to flow disproportionately to African-Americans.

Sunstein and Vermeule also observe that there seems to be a threshold number of executions below which no deterrent effect occurs:

In fact the data show a “threshold effect”: deterrence is found in states that had at least nine executions between 1977 and 1996. In states below that threshold, no deterrence can be found. This finding is intuitively plausible. Unless executions reach a certain level, murderers may act as if the death is so improbable as not to be worthy of concern. Her main lesson is that once the level of executions reaches a certain level, the deterrent effect of capital punishment is substantial.

So it isn’t enough merely to legislate for the death penalty, it has to be imposed and inflicted often enough to remind potential murderers of the likely consequences of their actions.

I have to confess that my moral intuition still tells me that the death penalty is barbaric and wrong, but I’m not prepared to dismiss Sunstein and Vermeule’s arguments, or the econometric evidence on which they’re based, out of hand. What do readers think?

PS – As usual, Wikipedia has an excellent article on capital punishment, with lots of links and a good summary of the arguments for and against the death penalty.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2021 years ago

without having read the study, notwithstanding the advances in econometric studies, that is still a lot of ifs on which to hang the decision of a State to make the most ultimate form of regulation. I certainly accept the logic that capital punishment can deter a whole lot of murders but relative to the worst that life imprisonment can offer, how much *more*? what is the additional benefit from capital punishment versus more rigorous application of imprisonment? could additional resources spent in increasing probability of detection possibly yield as much deterrence benefit – and if the riposte is where are these additional resources going to come from – well, because capital punishment is such an extreme measure and it’s wise not to get it wrong, you’d expect it it would tie up a lot of resources in appeals and so on (and rightly so). if the US abolished capital punishment and the resources freed up from that were released into alternative areas, could the same level of deterrence be achieved? because the cost of error is so high in this case, one would also expect juries to err towards not convicting even if the case were sufficiently strong if the punishment the defendant faced were life imprisonment (which is potentially compensable in the way that capital punishment is not) so perversely more criminals could be let go than under a regime without capital punishment but was otherwise tough on crime.

so one can still make a reasonable case against capital punishment without recourse to the ‘yuck’ factor and moral intuititions. it isn’t clear to me that the researchers have looked at marginal costs and benefits and compared them with plausible alternatives which can yield the same results with less drastic errors being perpetrated.

Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

The test for these sort of studies, aside from the validity of the data and the robustness of the analysis, is often how they refute previous studies which have come to opposite conclusions.

On cross state comparisons, as Nicholas has noted before in the context of the discussion about Freakeconomics, there are notorious methodological difficulties around causality:

“Cross-state comparisons present two problems. First, they do not hold enough factors constant in a statistical sense. That is, even states that appear “similar” can differ in many ways that are relevant for determining the homicide rate, and a gross comparison of murder levels by state cannot adjust for these differences. For example, murder rates have been shown to respond to differences in incomes, racial composition, age of the population, and urbanization and population density. The probability of arrest is also a significant factor, and can also vary across states. A simple state-by-state comparison cannot capture these many differences. The only way to adjust for these multiple factors is to use a multivariate statistical tool such as some variant of multiple-regression analysis; simple two-by-two comparisons such as those used by Sellin and the New York Times are inadequate. (Sellin was writing before the statistical and computational tools were available to perform the sort of analysis required; the New York Times has no such excuse.)

The second reason for the inappropriateness of state-by-state comparisons is that causality can go either way. That is, a state may have capital punishment precisely because it has a higher murder rate and is trying to control this evil. In such a case, observing capital punishment and a high murder rate says nothing about causality, and the deterrence argument is that rates would be even higher if there were no capital punishment.

The first serious attempts to examine these influences in a modern statistically valid model were made by Isaac Ehrlich, a student of Gary Becker’s. In two papers published in the 1970s, Ehrlich examined the effect of executions on homicides, one at a national level and one at the level of states. In both he found a statistically significant deterrent effect. However, others have reanalyzed his data extensively and have found no such effects”

From another study on the same issue.

My other big problem with econometric studies generally is the assumptions made about human motivation in terms of calculation. Most of the studies opposing the notion that the death penalty is a deterrent done in criminology attempt to demonstrate that the “rational actor” model of a criminal is a very poor one indeed. Consider the state of mind that most murders are conducted in. There are very few that are coldly and calculatingly planned. Most are spur of the moment and while the criminal is in a highly disturbed state (which by definition is still a state of rationality in the legal sense but not in terms of the models of human behaviour used in econometric studies).

Hence (probably predictably) I’d suggest that most of the assumptions underlying both this study and Jason’s comment are wrong, if we look at the realities of criminal behaviour rather than “marginal costs and benefits”.

I also suspect that the deterrent effect is just a rationalisation by those who are in favour of capital punishment – the underlying motive in my judgement seems to be viciously punitive – an eye for an eye, etc.

Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

The study from which I quoted is:

The death penalty and deterrence
Paul H Rubin. Phi Kappa Phi Forum. Baton Rouge: Winter 2002.Vol.82, Iss. 1; pg. 10, 3 pgs

I’ve deliberately picked one that uses another econometric model rather than one coming from a sociological criminology perspective.

Robert
2021 years ago

“Her main lesson is that once the level of executions reaches a certain level, the deterrent effect of capital punishment is substantial.”

I find the idea of a “quota” of executions that must be met in order to effect government policy to be quite repugnant. What if you’re one short of the required level? Did those who are executed die for a deterrent effect that doesn’t exist? Or do you just kill someone who would otherwise get life, simply to top up the numbers?

Nicholas Gruen
2021 years ago

In addition to Jason’s qualms I think of a larger counterfactual. If one did this study across the developed world one would get a very different result. Because a big fact jumps out at me. The US executes far more people than most developed countries (who execute no people at all) AND has a way higher crime and murder rate.

So one might suggest that there are multiple equilibria, and that if one is in the wild west realm – which the US seems to be both statistically and psychologically – then topping the odd murderer would help protect victims. On the other hand the death penalty is at one with a culture of violence. It seems to me quite possible that it could therefore exaccerbate violence where there is a low violence culture.

There’s a lot of positive feedback in the world, and violence is one of the areas in which positive feedback is rampant. Shouldn’t these academics have at least mentioned the fact that the correlation in their inter-state regression appear to have an opposite sign to the correlation that I presume would emerge from a study in which the samples were countries rather than states?

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
2021 years ago

I was going to make the same point as Nicholas.

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
2021 years ago

“In fact the data show a “threshold effect”

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2021 years ago

Picking up on Nicholas’s point, most murders in Australia, as I understand it, are domestics or estranged fathers murdering their whole families, or people who are otherwise psychotic. It’s hard to see how a deterrant effect would work in these cases, since the murderers are usually enraged or disturbed, and often kill themselves afterwards in any case.

Stephen Bounds
Stephen Bounds
2021 years ago

Yes, Nicholas makes the obvious point — the “wild west” culture of the US is very different from other countries and therefore, your mileage may vary.

Talking of “acts of omission” by government — I wonder what the long-term effects of banning firearms in the USA would have on the murder rate?

(The USA’s First Amendment constantly reminds me why I am glad Australia doesn’t have a Bill of Rights.)

Stephen Bounds
Stephen Bounds
2021 years ago

Yes, Nicholas makes the obvious point — the “wild west” culture of the US is very different from other countries and therefore, your mileage may vary.

Talking of “acts of omission” by government — I wonder what the long-term effects of banning firearms in the USA would have on the murder rate?

(The USA’s Second Amendment constantly reminds me why I am glad Australia doesn’t have a Bill of Rights.)

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2021 years ago

exactly Stephen
this relates to my earier point about comparing alternatives and whether capital punishment does indeed provide a ‘low hanging fruit’ method of extracting improvements in outcomes. given that it has a *very* high cost (unless one has faith in the omniscience of governments) there would seem to be far superior alternatives to pursue – thus the urgency that this study seems to fan is a total beat up

Nic White
2021 years ago

Nice job getting on the 7:30 report, Ken.

Nicholas Gruen
2021 years ago

Guns are also a nice way of illustrating how limited are the tools of cross country analysis. There is one country which has – or recently had – nearly as many or perhaps more guns per head of population as the US. But but it has had one of the lowest rates of gun violence and violence generally in the developed world. Switzerland.

So there are lots of things going on and running as many things as you can get your hands on through a big multiple regression may not get you any closer to the truth – it may indeed conceal it. Culture matters.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
2021 years ago

You would have been better off dismissing out of hand after all.

observa
observa
2021 years ago

“Picking up on Nicholas’s point, most murders in Australia, as I understand it, are domestics or estranged fathers murdering their whole families,”

Actually Dave, I heard somewhere recently that infanticide by natural fathers is much lower than infanticide by natural mothers. It is apparently the non-natural stepfathers and boyfriends who are the problem here. We neo-con, male, married types can take a bow here again as usual ;)

observa
observa
2021 years ago

Err, although this is perhaps statistically a case of where it’s not the thought that counts.

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

I’ve only read the transcript bu I’m assuming, Ken, you said ‘unalloyed’, not ‘unallied’?

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

Sorry, I’m the worst of pedants.

observa
observa
2021 years ago

Must admit, mostly I go along with the barbaric, slippery slope line, but sometimes I think what the hell, deterrence and the noose sounds fine!
http://www.news.com.au/story/0,10117,15680858-1702,00.html

Tim Lambert
2021 years ago

Kieran Healy had some skeptical comments on the paper at CT. And since you mention Gordon Hawkins, he wrote a book (with Zimring) comparing crime in Australia with the US. Both places have similar levels of violent crime, it’s just that crime in the US is far more lethal leading to a much higher homicide rate. Possible reasons for the difference are left as an exercise.

sophie
sophie
2021 years ago

I doubt that capital punishment ever acted as a deterrence to would-be murderers; what it does do, though, is permanently remove actual murderers, which is a good thing. Mandatory life imprisonment for murder also doesn’t deter murderers, I don’t think; the only real deterrence to murder is–at least for those without moral sense at all–the knowledge you’re going to get caught. And if caught, convicted. And if convicted, severely punished. It’s the catching though rather than the punishment which deters the criminal, the certain knowledge you’re not going to get away with it. If you don’t have that–for instance in the 18th cent example Ken was quoting(it was notoriously difficult to actually catch criminals and follow through on cases then)then there’s no real deterrent effect to capital punishment at all.
Like many people, I feel at times that it would be a good thing for capital punishment to return–esp when there’s a particularly horrible or cruel murder–but I also know that there is a small possibility of innocents being executed, and therefore that it shouldn’t come back. So on balance I feel mandatory life sentences for certain kinds of murder(and really life, ie the person is never, ever to be released)also fufills the same function but with more scope for error.
However then we’re faced with terrorist murders–where the murderer in question may be ‘sprung’ out of gaol by colleagues. I must say I don’t envy lawyers trying to legislate for the horrors of human nature..

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
2021 years ago

Ah Sophie, the write-only writer.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

Sophie

You’re dead right (pun for Homer’s benefit). Criminological research consistently shows that the strongest deterrent effect for any crime is created by increasing the probability of being caught, then convicted, then subjected to significant rather than nominal punishment. Some research even suggests that the actual length of imprisonment doesn’t impact deterrence very much, as long as the sentence is longer than nominal i.e. at least a year or two (not that I would ever suggest that murderers should be imrpisoned for such short periods).

Thus, as Jason suggested, we would almost certainly be far better advised to invest in enhanced police forensic resources, and examining the appropriateness of aspects of the criminal justice system (e.g. the defence of “diminished responsibility” and various aspects of the rules of evidence that are arguably too heavily weighted in favour of criminal defendants) than enacting a barbaric death penalty which would also inevitably be expensive given the necessity of providing exhaustive appeal rights and other safeguards to minimise the possibility of executing innocent people.

That’s why I said in the primary post that I remained opposed to the death penalty. But I also don’t dismiss the US research out of hand. It’s certainly possible that it’s mere “cherry-picking” or subject to other serious methodological deficiencies (and indeed Sunstein and Vermeule acknowledge that possibility in their article), but it’s also possible that the research is detecting a real deterrent effect. I don’t think we should peremptorily reject any scientific research merely because it offends our entrenched convictions/moral intuitions. But even if the death penalty could unequivocally be shown to have a significant deterrent effect in the US, that doesn’t necessarily mean the same would be true in a very different culture (with a much lower homicide rate) like Australia.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
2021 years ago

“I don’t think we should peremptorily reject any scientific research merely because it offends our entrenched convictions/moral intuitions.”

1. Society of course being a static system we can study whilst stroking our chins, knowing that whatever we decide will have no effect on people like us.

2. Relativist.

derrida derider
derrida derider
2021 years ago

This study goes against a vat number of other studies – which doesn’t *necessarily* make it wrong (the state of the econometric art is slowly advancing). Absent a proper refutation we maybe should adjust our priors a little for future studies.

Lets just say, though, you wouldn’t want to hang anyone on the strength of it. And Nick’s right – even if capital punishment does deter in the US, it doesn’t follow that it will in other less barbaric societies.

Jim Birch
Jim Birch
2021 years ago

Even if the death penalty would quickly clean up the illegal parking problem, would it really be such a good idea? Ha ha.

Utility is a one thing, but I always thought that there was a really big issue of the of the effect of state-sanctioned extermination of fellow humans on the people who are left alive. There’s a part of most of us that want a sufficiently fierce authoritarian regime to control those damn whatevers, but do we really want to live in the type of world that these subpersonalities would create? Personally, I want a bit of humility and forgiveness in my world, even if it’s inefficient.

Evil Pundit
2021 years ago

I think Dave Ricardo’s claim that “most murders in Australia … are domestics or estranged fathers murdering their whole families” is probably untrue.

He’s probably just repeating some feminist propaganda based on fabricated “advocacy research”.

As for the death penalty, I’ve never thought of it as having a significant deterrent effect.

What the death penalty does achieve is a significant decrease in recidivism, which accounts for its effectiveness. Repeat murderers don’t repeat when they’re dead.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
2021 years ago

The Australian Bureau of Statistics, that well-known manufactuary of feminist propaganda based on fabricated “advocacy research”, says [2004]:

Approximately half of the victims of murder, attempted murder, assault and sexual assault knew their offender.

http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/76c8926bd8a12e1fca2568a9001393f2?OpenDocument

Evil Pundit
2021 years ago

Your reference simply proves my point.

The fact that half the victims of murder knew their offender says nothing about their relationship. Even if all the victims were female, at most they would make up half, not a majority, of victims.

Yet that is not the case:

“More males than females were victims of … murder and attempted murder (both 67%).”

So it turns out that Dave Ricardo is, in fact, full of shit when he spreads his male-hating propaganda. Thanks for the link.

Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

“We neo-con, male, married types can take a bow here again as usual”

Unless, observa, you count state-sanctioned killing. Neo-con, male, married types are the culprit there.

Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

“I don’t think we should peremptorily reject any scientific research merely because it offends our entrenched convictions/moral intuitions.”

Indeed, Ken, but we should subject it to methodological scrutiny. I note that EP doesn’t do this or call something he agrees with “advocacy research”.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2021 years ago

Gee, EP, what’s gotten up your nose? Is your ex-wife hassling you over the maintenance again? Giving you a hard time on when you’ve got to get the kids back?

Life’s a bitch, aint it?

You should read more carefully. I said that

“most murders in Australia, as I understand it, are domestics or estranged fathers murdering their whole families, or people who are otherwise psychotic”

the key words in this context being “or people who are otherwise psychotic”.

There’s something for you to think about.

And, how does “More males than females were victims of … murder and attempted murder (both 67%)” disprove my point?

If (some) estranged fathers kill their sons, and psychotics kill men more than women, then those figures are what you would expect to see.

Homer  Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

Deterrance is an evil concept.
This is because the minute a person commits a crime the person in prison to ‘deter’ other people shouldn’t be there.
The punishment fittting the crime is the only suitable punishment or to put it another way an eye for an eye etc.

Capital punishment can be justified IF a person who has committed murder without any ambiguity ( say Martin Bryant) then they have just lost their reason to be able to live with other civilised people.
Or making the punishment fit the crime.

The last place I would look for justification is econometrics!

Nabakov
Nabakov
2021 years ago

“the strongest deterrent effect for any crime is created by increasing the probability of being caught, then convicted, then subjected to significant rather than nominal punishment.”

That’s certainly what’s deterred me from being a master criminal, along with sheer bloody laziness. I’m with Ken and Jason in believing that that the best crime deterrance is a smart, well resourced crime detection and justice system, well publicised. And I think that actually all those TV forensic shows are performing a useful service here – reminding wanna-be crooks of all the resources that can be deployed to catch ’em (even if the reality is sometimes underfunded.)

It’s no accident that Australia’s smartest police minister, Tim Holding, has sent the message out within VicPol that he wants some high profile busts that really publicise their whizzy new technologies so that crims (who generally aren’t the sharpest lockpick in the box) think twice in case laser-guided DNA scanning internet-enabled LEO satillites zero in on them. White collar crime is of course another cooked book.

But as Dave R and Homer “Hang ’em low” P have just been pointing out in different ways, murder in western countries is overwhelming a crime of passion or pyschosis and so not really that deterrable. Outside of trained personnel in battlespaces, very few people are thinking clearly and weighing the odds when they take another life. Consequences are the last thing on your mind when it’s got up and walked away, leaving behind your id in a red rage and a frying pan in your hand.

Not to mention the mixed messages sent by killing someone for the crime of killing someone.

Although, in the case of someone like Martin Bryant, turning him over to science for dismantling and detailed study kinda makes sense. Just keeping him penned up in Risdon like a pyschotic Tasmanian Devil for the term of his natural life doesn’t strike me as the most productive outcome we could draw from a day that’s utterly vile even by Port Arthur’s bloody historical standards.

An aside: Visiting Port Arthur, a truly haunted and charged place, I was struck by the fact that, while Bryant’s beserker rampage was acknowledged and his victims remembered in several different ways, not once anywhere was his name mentioned. Always wording like “a lone gunman”. The local community seems to want to keep the memory of the act and the dead alive while trying to blot him out as a person. It struck me as a very appropriate response given the history and vibe of that sad, grim and haunted cove at the end of the world.

Evil Pundit
2021 years ago

You still haven’t proven any of your points, Dave. But you have demonstrated a propensity to smear and fear fathers (of which group I am not a member). It’s this sexist hatred in you that I find objectionable.

As for the death penalty itself, the argument has concentrated on a putative deterrent effect — when the most obvious effect of the death penalty is in preventing recidivism.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2021 years ago

You fathersmearer Dave, you! Well, at least yer not a motherfucker.

“of which group I am not a member”

That’s cool Evil Pee. Probably a heredity thing anyway.

maelorin
2021 years ago

if the death penalty worked as a deterrent, why would carefully selected statistical tools be needed to demonstrate that link?

i’m particularly wary of ‘economic’ modelling being used to demonstrate something that is supposed to be self-evident.

the death penalty is about revenge. dead people have no capacity for change, or to understand what they have done. that is not to say that every person convicted of a crime can be or is ‘rehabilitated’. but many do not re-offend.

when the death penalty is on the table, it is astounding to see the baying for blood that often follows it.

people need opportunities to address their trauma, and to move on. killing the person blamed for causing the hurt does not resolve the pain – though it can postpone the healing process.

the criminal trial process, through it’s formality and thoroughness, affords people time to grieve and to move on. while this is not universally true, for those that do harness the opportunity, it can be a life changing experience. one that is more meaningful and lasting than a revenge killing by the state (or a sudden discovery of religion).

and this is sometimes true of the offender as well.

observa
observa
2021 years ago

“Unless, observa, you count state-sanctioned killing. Neo-con, male, married types are the culprit there.”

Well Mark, at least we give them a chance to grow up and then we can decide which bastards deserve bumping off, instead of arbitrarily knocking them off in the womb like some. Streuth, I might even magnanimously concede you the Lancet figures here, but then that’s the sort of blokes we are ;)

ctd
ctd
2021 years ago

One point not mentioned is that only about 12% of murders in Australia are unsolved (National Homicide Monitoring Program). In the USA the rate is about 35% unsolved for 2003 (FBI), although other years it was much higher.

In any event, the deterrence effect of increasing the risk of being caught isn’t that high in Australia, since you already have a 9/10 chance of being caught (level of punishment is a different issue).

The rate of murder in Australia is 2/100,000. Guns only make up 16% of weapons used in murders (Australian Institue of Criminology). In the US the rate is around 6/100,000 (down from around 10 in the 1980s) and guns are used in 70% of murders (FBI). The FBI also says that Between 1980 and 1987, firearms were used in just over half (54%) of all homicides involving a juvenile offender. Then, firearm-related homicides began to increase, so that by 1994, most homicides by juvenile offenders (82%) involved guns. And the sharp decline in homicides by juveniles between 1994 and 1997 was attributable entirely to a decline in homicides by firearms (that is the FBI conclusion, not mine).

As Nick and others suggested, guns and society (and probably drugs and poverty – both notably low in Switzerland) surely are much more important than the death penalty.

The lowest level of being solved in Australia are assaults and property crimes. My house has been burgled several times and the police don’t even pretend that they will solve the crime, unless they stumble across your stuff due to an incompentent crim. Not that it particularly bothers me, after all a few $1000 from my insurance company plus a heap of calls trying to get someone to fix my door/window frames is hardly an important issue for the police.

StephenL
StephenL
2021 years ago

I don’t believe in dismissing research just because it goes against one’s gut feeling, but I do think it’s an extra reason to examine it closely. I don’t have the skills to really examine any flaws in the modelling, but this rings a lot of alarm bells for me as being false.

The first problem I saw has been pointed out – if capital punishment is a deterent, how come the US has a much higher murder rate than any other western country?

The second one is that many of the places with the lowest violent crime rates within the US don’t have capital punishment – eg states like Vermont. Of course their largely rural context might be the reason, but it still makes it hard to believe the result could be produced without cherry-picking.

A third problem, lots of murders are domestic disputes (leave aside which gender is doing the killing) or people who are deeply mentally ill, as mentioned. But look at the biggest cases that don’t fit this category. In Melbourne we have had over 20 murders committed by rival organised crime factions. These people *know* that every time they bump off someone from the other side it is a virtual certainty that the relatives of the victim will either try to kill them, or pay a hitman to do the job for them, and most of the time will succeed. But they keep going, to the point of refusing to talk to the police about what they know about the killings of their family members.

So if a very high probablity of being killed by the other side won’t stop someone revenging a friend’s murder, what chance a reasonable risk of being executed by the state? The risk has to be lower, becuase the government is not going to be able to prove every case, and not every convicted murder is certain to be hung.

So we know: capital punishment does not deter crimes of passion, psychotic attacks and gangland killings. What does that leave? Not a lot I would say.