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
It is reasonable to suggest
death penalty have a deterrent effect in the
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
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
There have been various legal moves to
limit the imposition of death penalty in the
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
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.
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?
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
With the exception of
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
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 https://www.facebook.com/pages/Capital-Punishment-UK/315934825111204
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.