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Brunner on Death Penalty: Not Ready for Prime Time

Jennifer Brunner is the Secretary of State of Ohio. She wants to be U.S. Senator. Her piece in the Huffington Post on the death penalty demonstrates conclusively that she is not ready for that office or any position with major responsibilities for criminal justice issues.

The worst line in this meandering, hand-wringing piece is this one: "Research has proven that the death penalty is not a deterrent...."

Where on earth is she getting her information? There is, of course, a robust debate among people who know what they are talking about regarding what the evidence shows on deterrence. Abstracts of articles in peer-reviewed journals for the last dozen years are collected here. Nobody on either side of the debate in any of these articles has claimed proof of the anti-deterrence case, and as far as I know no reputable scholar has made such an assertion.

Donohue and Wolfers are among the strongest and most often cited of the critics of the studies showing a deterrent effect.  Their assessment is, "the econometric evidence is too uncertain to draw strong conclusions, but the weight of the evidence, if anything, would support the anti-deterrence or the no effect hypothesis more strongly than the deterrence hypothesis." Far from asserting that their side's case has been proved, they state definitively that it has not. Others, of course, disagree with their assessment of which way the balance tips. Nobel laureate Gary Becker says the preponderance of evidence favors deterrence, but he also says the case has not been proved either way.

So where does Ms. Brunner get off making this flat assertion about what "research proves"? Did she do any fact-checking at all before she made that statement? Apparently little or none. Does she pick assertions out of the most dubious, biased sources and assume them to be true? Apparently so. That is no way to make decisions on issues of this magnitude.

The United States Senate makes important decisions about the administration of criminal law. In addition to federal criminal statutes, that body also makes laws regarding federal review of state criminal cases, and it confirms judges who will conduct that review. Let us hope that the people of Ohio have the wisdom to elect someone who is up to that job. Jennifer Brunner quite clearly is not.

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