July 5, 2007
Death As A Deterrent
By John Lott, Post Chronicle
Capital punishment clearly increases the risk to criminals of engaging in
various crimes, especially murder. But does this increased risk affect
Last week the academic debate erupted in the media with an Associated Press
article headlined "Studies: Death Penalty Discourages Crime," but even this
recognition downplays the general consensus on the findings.
The media is a bit Johnny-come-
has been done on the death penalty over the last decade, with nine of the 12
refereed academic studies by economists finding that the death penalty saves
Some academics are yet to be convinced and argue that the risk of a criminal
being executed for murder is so remote that, "It is hard to believe that
fear of execution would be a driving force in a rational criminal's calculus
in modern America."
Yet, before trying to answer whether this risk to criminals is significant,
let's first consider how another group that faces similar dangers reacts to
the risk of death.
Academics classify being a police officer as an "extremely dangerous" job.
In 2005, 55 police officers were murdered on the job, while another 67 were
accidentally killed. With nearly 700,000 full-time, sworn law enforcement
officers in the United States, the murder rate of police officers comes to 1
in 12,500, a ratio that jumps to 1 in 5,600 when we include accidental
Police officers undertake a variety of measures to reduce the dangers: They
wear bullet-proof vests, develop special procedures for approaching stopped
cars and in some situations officers wait for backup even when this
increases the probability that a suspect will escape.
These dangers also create strain on officers' marriages, contributing to a
divorce rate that is twice that of the general population.
Officers undertake all these measures as a natural human reaction to the
risk of death -- the riskier an activity, the more a person will usually
avoid it or take steps to make it safer.
The risk that a violent criminal faces from execution is much greater than
the risk of a police officer being killed. In 2005, there were almost 16,700
murders in the United States and 60 executions. That translates to one
execution for every 278 murders. In other words, a murderer is 20 times more
likely to be executed than a police officer is to be deliberately or
accidentally killed on duty.
Those who argue that the death penalty has no effect on violent crime assume
that the risk of execution in no way deters criminals from committing
capital crimes. While criminals, just like police officers, are naturally
less adverse to danger than, say, school teachers or accountants, the notion
that it is irrational for them to take into account such an enormous
additional risk is irrational.
But a non-trivial issue is how to define the execution rate. It actually
matters a lot.
When defined as executions per murder committed, academics find that the
death penalty deters murders and saves lives.
But those academics who instead define their measure as death penalty
executions per person in prison find no relationship. Which is the best
Clearly, we should consider the real risk to the potential murderers, and
executions per murder seems to be a much more direct measure of that risk.
By contrast, executions per prisoner includes all sorts of extraneous crimes
in the measure.
For example, if fewer criminals were arrested and imprisoned for stealing
radios from cars, executions per prisoner inexplicably implies that the
risks to committing murder increases. It is not at all surprising that this
strange measure implies no real link between the execution rate and murders.
Source : Post Chronicle