Does Capital Punishment Deter Crime? Comparing States - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity


Does Capital Punishment Deter Crime? Comparing States

Several years ago I wrote an article in which I looked at some statistics and concluded that capital punishment does indeed deter crime.

I've received a number of attempted rebuttals to that article over the years. The gist of most of them was that all the experts agree that I am wrong, and so it is not necessary to even look at the facts I offered. While I try to answer such emails politely, I humbly suggest that, even if "all the experts" really did agree, this does not prove it is so. All the experts could be wrong. Of course in real life the experts disagree widely.

But I recently received one email that made a substantive counter-argument. The writer said that if we compare U.S. states that have the death penalty to those that do not, the murder rate in states without a death penalty is actually lower, thus proving that capital punishment not only does not deter, but actually makes matters worse.

This was an interesting claim, so I studied the statistics. I'll ruin any possible surprise ending by telling you my conclusion now: I find the results inconclusive.

I got statistics on murder rate by state from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics. (USDOJBJS for short.) The latest data was for 2001. I got a list of which states had capital punishment as of July 2001 from the Michigan State University Comm Tech Lab and Death Penalty Information Center.

The average murder rate for the 38 states with capital punishment was 5.22 murders per 100,000 people. The average murder rate for the 13 states (including the District of Columbia) without capital punishment was 5.96. So in fact the states with capital punishment had a lower murder rate, but not dramatically lower. Not enough to really prove anything.

The statistics include the District of Columbia as a state. DC has a very high murder rate. If we leave DC out of the average for non-capital punishment states, then their average murder rate is dramatically less, only 3.08. On the one hand you could say it's fair to leave out the one place that has an unusually high number from an average. On the other hand, if we get to arbitrarily leave out all the biggest numbers from the calculation of an average, of course the total will be smaller.

States without capital punishment had murder rates ranging from 1.1 (Vermont and North Dakota) to 40.6 (District of Columbia). States with capital punishment had murder rates ranging from 0.9 (South Dakota) to 11.2 (Louisiana). That is, they completely overlapped.

An opponent of capital punishment could say that this lack of a clear trend is evidence for their case: capital punishment does not deter any more than life imprisonment or whatever other punishment the non-capital punishment states may have. There is no support for the more extreme claim that capital punishment causes more crime (for example, some will argue that such state-sanctioned violence encourages the private variety), but this does support the theory that capital punishment does not deter any more than other penalties.

On the other hand, a supporter of capital punishment could well argue that these statistics are indecisive because they fail to distinguish cause and effect. Just looking at murder rates and existence of capital punishment as a snapshot in time hides any possible trend. If a place has a high murder rate and has capital punishment, is this because capital punishment failed to deter murders, or even caused murders? Or is it because the place's murder rate got so high that the people there finally resorted to capital punishment as a way to fight it?

If this was the only evidence we had, I think I would consider it at least mild evidence against the effectiveness of capital punishment. But it's not the only evidence we have: we also have the evidence of murder rates and changes in laws about capital punishment over time, which, I believe, is more persuasive.

For those who want the details:

Without capital punishment
VT 1.1
ND 1.1
ME 1.4
IA 1.7
WV 2.2
MA 2.3
MN 2.4
HI 2.6
WI 3.6
RI 3.7
MI 6.7
AK 8.1
DC 40.6

With capital punishment
SD 0.9
NH 1.4
WY 1.8
ID 2.3
OR 2.4
NB 2.5
DE 2.9
UT 3.0
WA 3.0
CT 3.1
KS 3.4
CO 3.6
MT 3.8
NJ 4.0
OH 4.0
KY 4.7
NY 5.0
VA 5.1
OK 5.3
PA 5.3
FL 5.3
NM 5.4
AR 5.5
NC 6.2
TX 6.2
SC 6.3
CA 6.4
MO 6.6
IN 6.8
GA 7.1
TN 7.4
AZ 7.5
IL 7.9
MD 8.3
NV 8.5
AL 8.5
MS 9.9
LA 11.2

© 2003 by Jay Johansen


Stephen Feb 20, 2012

I completely agree. I think to back up your argument a bit better with the fact that states with higher executions have higher crime rates and the other way around, you should state that some of these states with higher homicide rates have different amounts of races, sexes, and environments than every other state. This would mean that they're evidence is flawed because If i were to take two groups of people, one who were raised hostile, maybe by gangs or some type of violence, they'd be more likely to kill than people who were raised in a friendly environment. People who grow up around violence are likely to commit it. One way is to show crime rate and executions year by year, which shows a rise in homicides as executions go down. It also shows that once moratoriums on executions ended, homicides plummeted. I will try to find the link as I have lost it in further research.

Sebastien Mar 7, 2012

Upon reading youre article i noticed that you only considered crime rates for murders. Being that the cheif problem (in trying to determine weather capital punishment does work) is the lack of statiscial data, surely it would make sense to try an inculde all crimes punishbale by death, but that has its obvious flaws. Perhaps it would be more sensible to take crimes that result in life imprisionment, and calculate this data to try and see weather a greater difference occurs.

Also DC is an outlier so does not need to be submitted in order to make youre argument plausable. We only have to consider the majorty of the states in order to build a clear enough and reliable picture. It is perfectly acceptable to simply trim the edges of the graph slightly, because why should one single state have such a large impact if it does not lie in cordinance with those in its group. To even further the research would require analysis of individual cases, to try and identify if one type of crime can be found in correlation to capital punishment.

The problem i find with looking at America is that ease of acess within states, for example which state does the criminal submit to if he lived his whole life in one state but crosses the border to commit a crime. On one hand he was subject to the laws of his home state, and on the other hand he was spured on by the laws of another.

Regardless i enjoyed the article and hope to see more work

Bii Mc Mahon Feb 11, 2014

I live in Washington state,which has the death penalty. My point,is they have only executed 110 people since 1848. Thats not much of a deterant. It takes 20/30 years to put some to death, after being fond guily. Very costley! Its all a lawers game. Giulty is guilty.!

Keith Hosman May 10, 2017

One thing to look at also, in states w/o the death penalty, many times the prosecutor will not push for 1st degree murder, many times they will go with a lower charge such as manslaughter, which will not show up in the murder rate statistics as it is not listed as a murder charge.

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