Deterrence and the death penalty.


In the 21st century very few countries still use the death penalty as a tool of state policy to attempt to deter their populace from certain acts.  Probably the most notable exception to this is the totalitarian regime in North Korea.  There have been reports of people being publicly hanged or shot for trying to escape from this oppressive country or for helping others to do so. 

Iran uses the death penalty as a deterrent to certain crimes, particularly rape and drug offences which account for over 80% of the executions there.  Iran, with a population of around 70 million, has a very high rate of execution with at least 340 people being put to death there during 2011, all by hanging, some in public.

It is reasonable to suggest China used to use the death penalty repressively although this seems to be on the wane and of late reported executions there are for civilian crimes.  One might recall the “Strike Hard” campaigns of a few years ago that were designed to crack down on crime, particularly drug offences.  Accurate figures for executions in China are a state secret and not released so it is impossible to know what effect the death penalty has there.  The number of capital crimes were reduced in 2011 and the procedures for applying and approving the death penalty tightened up.


Malaysia and Singapore both used the death penalty extensively in the last decades of the 20th century to deter drug trafficking but this also seems to have largely ceased and very few executions are now reported from either country.  There were just four in Singapore in 2011 (two for murder and two for drug offences) and none in Malaysia.


Does death penalty have a deterrent effect in the US?

It is often claimed by the anti-death penalty lobby that states and the pro-death penalty lobby favour the death penalty because it is a deterrent.  They then go on to “prove” that it is not a deterrent and therefore should be abolished.  If one takes that argument to a logical conclusion it is obvious that prison is not a deterrent either, as the US has one of the largest prison populations per million inhabitants in the world, so presumably this should also be abolished.

But who is actually claiming it to be a deterrent?  Certainly not the state governments that legislate for it, nor typically District Attorney’s who have to decide whether to pursue the death penalty in specific cases.  A recent survey of senior law enforcement officers found that they did not view it as a deterrent either.  It is clear that there is no attempt by individual state legislatures to retain the death penalty as anything more than the ultimate punishment for the worst crimes.  It is doubtful in the post Furman era, since executions resumed in 1977, that the death penalty has been seriously used in the hope deterring.


The death penalty is retribution for the worst crimes – it is as simple as that.  Either one believes that retribution is morally justified or one doesn’t and the most recent polls suggest that at least 65% of the US population believe that it is.


There have been various legal moves to limit the imposition of death penalty in the US.

On June 20, 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment t to execute death row inmates with mental retardation, which included those with an IQ of less than 70.  In 2005 it ruled in Roper v Simmons that executing persons under 18 at the time of the crime was in breach of the constitution.


All 34 states with death penalty statutes permit juries the option of sentencing offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole, as does Federal and military law.  Only Alaska does not have this option but it does not have the death penalty either.  The other 14 non death penalty states do allow it.


How can the death penalty be a deterrent if there are hardly any executions?  In reality there are a very small number of executions annually.  There were just 43 in 2011, partially due to the ongoing challenges to lethal injection protocols and to a shortage of the necessary drugs which delayed executions in some states. 
Also only a very tiny proportion of murderers are sentenced to death in the first place - about 1.5%. In 2011 just 78 death sentences were handed down in the whole country, the lowest figure for decades.  These death sentences and executions, like the homicides that led to them are not evenly distributed throughout the country.  In some states, e.g. California, it seems that the retention of the death penalty is principally to induce plea bargains from defendants, which saves costly trials.


Let us remind ourselves of an interesting fact.  Most Americans have no wish to kill another human being, irrespective of the possible punishment, because they innately believe it to be wrong. 99.995% of the population do not commit an act of homicide in a given year.  This is based upon a population of 304 million with 15,241 homicides giving a murder rate of around 5.0 per 100,000 people in 2009. Homicides include first and second degree murders and non-negligent manslaughter.  So in effect the vast majority of people are self deterring. (FBI figures and classification of homicide)


Using Bureau of Justice statistics it is interesting to note the fall in the homicide rate from a peak in 1980 of 10.7/100,000 to 5.0/100,000 of population in 2010.  Remember that the first post Furman execution took place in 1977 and that by 1980 there had only been three executions nationally.  Homicide rates are continuing to decline in most states. Does this indicate a deterrent effect?
In Singapore where there is a much tougher attitude to crime in general, the latest rate homicide is just 0.3/100,000.  People there know that if they are convicted of murder they will almost certainly be hanged and this concept seems to have become deeply ingrained in the national psyche.

Only a small proportion of those sentenced to death are eventually executed, some may have their conviction quashed or death sentence reduced on appeal, some will die of natural causes awaiting execution.  In those states that have the death penalty there is always a delay of many years between sentence and execution.  The average is around 14 years and the condemned inmate has endless opportunities to appeal.  In all states, other than Texas, the number of executions as compared to death sentences and murders is infinitesimally small. Texas accounts for 37.6% of all US executions since 1977. 

With the exception of Oklahoma, Texas and Florida, 50% of the population, who commit 11% of all murders, are virtually exempt from actual execution it would seem, this being the female half of society. Just eleven women have been executed between 1984 and 2011, of whom two were consensual – Christina Riggs in Arkansas and Aileen Wournoss in Florida.

Lethal injection is now either the sole method or the default option in every death penalty state.  It would seem that most people perceive this to be the least cruel form of execution, perhaps because most of us have experienced (non lethal) injections and the procedure looks to be pain free, unlike the public hangings that take place in Iran.

Some academic studies have concluded that the death penalty is a deterrent while others conclude that it isn’t.  It is a debate that will probably continue as long as capital punishment remains on the statute books of US states and will never reach a clear conclusion.  Links to some of these studies can be found here.


Are you deterred by the existence of the death penalty? Do you remember the last execution in your state? Do you believe that you would actually be executed if you were found guilty of murder in the first degree? These are a crucial questions for the deterrence argument. A recent survey of a number of death row prisoners in several states showed that few of them actually gave much thought to what would happen to them and most did not expect to get caught in the first place. Do you believe that even if you were caught, convicted and sentenced to death that you would ever actually be put to death? In most states, death sentences and executions are a very rare occurrence and receive publicity only at a local (state) level, which is therefore unlikely to be noticed by or effect people in other states.  Do you hear/read about executions taking place in the country as a whole and in your state in particular? If so does this information have any effect on you? If you are not aware of executions in your state how can you be deterred by them? On September 20th, 2012 both Ohio and Texas had an execution. Two executions on the same day is hardly a common event and yet neither was reported in the New York Times or my local daily newspaper the following day.


What is your perception of the deterrent effect of death penalty? I would welcome your views, either directly or on the Capital Punishment UK Facebook page at

In conclusion one asks the question why does a punishment, capital or otherwise, have to be a deterrent to justify its existence?  Societies both wish and need to deal with offenders in a fair and proportionate fashion.  If having done so there is some deterrent effect on other like minded offenders, great – that is a bonus.  If not it has dealt with the individual offender.  I have purposely used the word offender here rather than murderer because the logic of fair, just and proportionate punishments applies to all offenders.


Main Contents Page Thoughts on the death penalty in the USA