June 11, 2007

Is Deterrence The Only Question?

I have been one of the few conservatives who have expressed opposition to the death penalty, on several bases. While I have not specifically tied my opposition to the lack of deterrent value in executions, a number of pro- and anti-capital punishment advocates have argued over that precise point for decades. Now the AP reports that several new studies show a deterrent effect of between 3 and 18 uncommitted murders for every execution.

Does this change the debate over the death penalty? At Heading Right, I examine Cass Sunstein's suggestion that this may create a moral imperative to execute murderers, and ask whether deterrence is the only question, or even the main question, in this debate.


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Comments (18)

Posted by lexhamfox | June 11, 2007 10:08 AM

I'm not sure what the 'moral imperative' argument would be even if one accepted that the data was being properly interpreted. I can not imagine it would be any more compelling than the need to make absolutely sure that innocent people are not wrongly executed and that certainty can only be acheived by not having executions in the first place.

Posted by NoDonkey | June 11, 2007 10:08 AM

The Discovery Channel and the National Geographic Channel have put together some fascinating documentaries on prisons.

One thing I’ve definitely learned is that “life without parole” DEFINITELY does not mean the inmate “will not kill again”.

One of the Aryan Nations guys is responsible for killing or ordering the killing of 21 people IN PRISON, including guards. He also ordered a hit on a convict’s family, where a recently released Aryan Nation member killed a convict’s father, who was sleeping in his own home at the time he was shot.

Dead inmates don’t order hits, they don’t kill guards and other convicts and they don’t terrorize guards and other inmates.

Until a method is devised to truly keep death row inmates from “killing again”, they should be executed.

Posted by Uncle Jefe | June 11, 2007 10:21 AM

What's unfortunate is that the death penalty's deterrent power has been greatly eroded for lack of enforcement. How many of these scumbags are alive 10, 20, even 30 years after the deaths of their victims? These lowlifes and their leftisit enablers game our system. With appeal after appeal after appeal, 3 squares, recreation, education, television, computers... Just what is there to make the price of murder onerous?

Posted by Pat Martin | June 11, 2007 10:22 AM

Ed, the dabate you suggest might be OK if the topic were called "Capital Deterrent" instead of "capital punishment." Deterrence is a liberal's reddest of red herrings designed to frame the debate. don't engage them.

The issue is whether or not people who commit certain crimes should pay with the remainder of their lives on earth. I say, "yes."

Morality is something too amorphous to hang much of anyone's hat on. That;s probably why the word doesn't appear in the Bible. What is involved is a principle.

Libs always like to cry about it being better for 100 murderers to go free than to execute one innocent. Ooops! No, they say "100 GUILTY." Nobody wants to turn 100 murderers loose. Semantics, semantics.

Capital punishment is just that. A person forfeits his right to life by the acts he commits. The rest is psycho-babble designed to make one appear reasoned, fair, and compassionate. Hogwash!

Posted by Lew | June 11, 2007 10:23 AM

Deterrence has NEVER been the only question or even the most important one. The question is "Given the facts of each case, what is justice?".

I have long held the opinion that the state's ability to take the life of a duly convicted murderer trumps the right of an injured party to exact a similar revenge on their own. In other words, it's meant to prevent the parent of a slaughtered innocent child from bringing a gun into court and blowing the convicted murderer's brains out if they don't get enough satisfaction from the imposed sentence. Its really meant to prevent the Ellie Nestlers of the world. Its a part of the contract we all implicitly make with civil society when we grant the state the sole power to exercise physical force, in return for giving up our natural urge to revenge.

Deterrence is a nice little icing on the cake for the utilitarians among us.

Posted by TomB | June 11, 2007 10:32 AM

If we want to be absolutely sure we won't execute an innocent man, then we should ban the death penalty. On the same token, if we want to be absolutely sure innocent person is not held in prison, we should ban imprisonment.
There is a crowd of do gooders out there who would do ANYTHING to help criminals, under a presumption, that the criminals are really victims of the oppression of the state, I think. This is simply madness.
I have big problem with the State, first, taking away right to revenge (an eye for an eye…), then caring for villains but not for victims.
By the way, I’d like to see how reliable the process of all this “Project Innocence” is.

Posted by Paul A'Barge | June 11, 2007 10:56 AM

The deterrence capability of the death penalty is 100%.

Every executed criminal commits no future criminal acts.

Posted by RBMN | June 11, 2007 11:01 AM

Either acts like committing multiple-premeditated-murder, or murdering after first torturing, or murdering a child is something profoundly evil, or it's not. If it is profoundly evil, it deserves the appropriate punishment, which is death.

Once a convicted murderer is dead, they can't kill any guards, they can't kill any fellow prisoners, and they have precisely a 0% chance of escape.

If a mistake is made in "good faith," and an innocent man executed, then that's very sad, and that man deserves to have his good name returned in every way possible. And his family should never want for anything tangible that he provided. But government does make big mistakes, humans do make big mistakes, and people die everyday because of it. That's not a good reason for derogation of duty. That's only a reason for several stages of appeal for each death sentence, and paying for high quality lawyers in every death sentence case.

I could die today because a city road worker removed a detour warning sign too soon, and I slammed my car into a dump truck. I'll be just as dead. He made a "good faith" mistake. That's how life goes. But a "bad faith" mistake is called murder, and that deserves its own murder charge. That's the deterrent for a "bad faith" execution.

Posted by pete in Midland | June 11, 2007 11:02 AM

I've never really worried about the the value of deterrence. I believe in preventative medicine. Anyone executed is guaranteed to never kill another ...
If there is deterrence value in the execution ... good stuff.
In the neverending argument over how many innocent people would be executed ... I've seldom, if ever, seen an innocent man sent to the noose/gaschamber/chair, etc. There is, once in a blue moon, a guilty man that was "properly" found guilty. Or a guilty man found "not guilty" because of a technicality. But a completely innocent man found guilty of a crime and executed. Small enough group to make statistical analysis somewhat suspect.

Posted by Rand | June 11, 2007 11:04 AM

The only argument against the death penalty is that juries and prosecutors sometimes make mistakes. That said, there are many cases where there is no doubt of guilt. When guilt is clear, it is an injustice to the victim to let the killer live. In the name of justice alone, the death penalty is required. Additionally, the killer is prevented from any further acts of violence. When someone commits murder, they lose all claim to sympathy or pity. They have placed themselves outside of civilization and no longer deserve it's protection.

Posted by John | June 11, 2007 3:04 PM

IIRC, about 30% of all murders and manslaughters are caused by repeat offenders. That is, someone who has killed, gotten arrested, convicted and sent to prison gets out and kills again. Now, leaving off that a lot of crimes go unsolved, this means that if all you did was keep killers in prison you'd cut the murder rate by almost a third. And unless you want to make "life in prison" the standard sentence for homicide and murder, and make it "life" without possibility of commutation or parole, I'm for the death penalty. See, in our current criminal legal system the average time spent in prison for killing someone is only 4-6 years. You may be sentenced to life, but have that commuted to time in prison. You may be sentenced to 20 years, but "good time" policies in many states can drop this by half, including your parole availability. So if you kill someone, actually get caught, actually get through trial and are found guilty and sentenced to prison...you'd be back on the streets by the time your victim's kid gets out of college. That's why you get these absurdly long prison sentences of 110 years and so on, that's a judge and jury trying to give a life sentence to someone who deserves that or death, but for whatever reason they cannot mete that out as punishment. Great system. Fix it and maybe I'll change my mind.

Posted by davod | June 11, 2007 4:32 PM

The reason deterrance is important is because the anti capital punishment crowd has repeatedly used the "it is not a deterrant" argument as the lynch pin of its case.

I would suggest from your comments that you have used the same argument.

Never fear. In six months a rebuttal will be forthcoming from another group of researchers.

Posted by pilsener | June 11, 2007 5:08 PM

Due to the long time frame, number of available appeals, judges and executives who simply refuse to apply it, the death penalty in America has become arbitrary and capricious and therefore should be done away with.

Whether it might act as a deterrent or fair sentence has become beside the point. Reform and shorten the process, or just give up on the death penlty as a rational sentence.

Posted by Uncle Jefe | June 11, 2007 5:16 PM

Pilsener, your comment speaks more to the degradation of the deterrent nature of capital punishment. It is neither arbitrary nor capricious. If the failings you address could be resolved, then we'd gain back the deterrent factor. I'd rather do away with the murderers (as well as rapists and child molesters) than the penalty.

Posted by gaffo | June 11, 2007 6:27 PM

the fundamental issue is not if executions ar commitied in error and a few innocent die nor if it serves as a deterent.

Life is an Inalienable Right - give by God and revoked by God.

The State has no fundamantal right to play God and deny said Inalienable Right to the accused.

What the accused did - take another's life is irrelivant since the accused is not The State.

We gave trials and jails for a reason.

Posted by gaffo | June 11, 2007 6:37 PM

"When someone commits murder, they lose all claim to sympathy or pity."

yes who? ever heard of extenuating circumstances - legal insanity etc...

you sure like that world of yours B&W - I'd love to have you on my jury - you'd make your verdict first and hit the facts to support it!

"They have placed themselves outside of civilization and no longer deserve it's protection."

Mercy is uncivilized?

Thank God our Civilization promotes the Jury System and each Juror has the duty to only listen to their own heart - and nullify the State's agenda if their conscience dictates.

Posted by Drew | June 11, 2007 8:23 PM

The deliberate taking of a life (homicide) breaks the social contract, and forfeits the life of the killer. It is about justice, deterrence, and retribution. To ignore any leg of the triad brings about the destruction of society.

Posted by Rand | June 13, 2007 8:07 AM


I believe in justice, not mercy. Mercy is the antithesis of justice - it means the giving of the undeserved to the undeserving. I especially don't believe in extending mercy to murderers - they took the life of innocents, so it is only just that they forfeit their own.

Killing in self-defense is completely justified, by the way, and is not definable as murder legally or morally. Self-defense is the only extenuating circumstance that should have any meaning in a court.

And no, if you committed murder, you wouldn't want me on your jury.

Also, I don't believe that insanity is a legitimate defense for murder. Murder is pretty irrational by definition and most murderers are clearly insane. All the more reason to execute them, because they will always be a threat to anyone around them.