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Enforcing the Death Penalty Saves Lives

Dudley Sharp has this op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, concisely stating the case for the death penalty.  Curiously, the headline writer took the word "death" out of the headline.


This is decencyevolves:

The National Research Council is less convinced on this point than you or Dudley Sharp:

WASHINGTON – In the more than three decades since the national moratorium on the death penalty was lifted, there is no reliable research to determine whether capital punishment has served as a deterrent to homicide, according to a review by the National Research Council.

The review, partially funded by the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, found that one of the major shortcomings in all previous studies has included "incomplete or implausible" measures of how potential murderers perceive the risk of execution as a possible consequence of their actions. Another flaw, according to the review, is that previous research never considered the impact of lesser punishments, such as life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"Fundamental flaws in the research we reviewed make it of no use in answering the question of whether the death penalty affects homicide rates," said Carnegie Mellon University professor Daniel Nagin, who chaired the council's study committee.

Nagin said Wednesday that the panel reviewed the work of "dozens" of researchers since a 1976 Supreme Court decision ended a four-year national moratorium on executions.

"We recognize that this conclusion may be controversial to some," Nagin said, "but no one is well served by unsupportable claims about the effect of the death penalty, regardless of whether the claim is that the death penalty deters homicides, has no effect on homicide rates or actually increases homicides."



I plan to comment on that study, hopefully in the near future, but it's a complex subject and will take more time than I can spare at present.

For now, suffice it to say that the report doesn't change much. I have consistently said that the studies are not definitive proof either way. Given that greater costs for any voluntary activity generally reduce the number of people who choose to do it, those who claim the death penalty has no deterrent effect have the burden of proving that this is the exception to the rule, and they haven't come close to carrying it.

Decencyevolves: That sort of vague generalized presumption is too weak for the conclusions you would like to draw, as Professor Nagin correctly notes. In my view at least, it's not really good enough as a basis for any meaningful scientific, legal or even rational conclusions. With luck, the National Research Council's survey will undercut citations to Justice Scalia's opinion in Baze v. Rees as support for the deterrent effect of the death penalty.

Quite the contrary, what Justice Scalia says about deterrence in Baze is fully consistent with the thesis that the deterrence case has not been proven empirically either way.

Whatever the general deterrent effect may or may not be, the death penalty permanently deters the heck out of the person against whom it is enforced. That alone saves lives.

decencyevolves: The death penalty acts as a specific deterrent little more than life without possibility of parole (apart from the small percentage of capital defendants guilty of homicide in or from prison), at a fraction of the cost, without the possibility of executing innocent defendants.

I think the death penalty does a few things that are not really quantifiable:

1) In situations where criminals act in concert, it would incentivize the criminals to make sure one doesn't commit murder. And if murder happens, it would incentivize one with lesser culpability to cut a deal.

2) I think it sends a generalized message--this jurisdiction is tough, and that acts as a general deterrent on crime.

3) I think it incentivizes plea deals for long-term incarceration, which saves money and takes too lenient sentencing outcomes and erroneous jury verdicts off the table. LWOP wouldn't be available as often if the DP is off the table.

What needs to happen with the death penalty is that sentences themselves (as well as eligibility) should not be the business of federal courts, except SCOTUS on cert. from state courts. The federal courts, and this includes SCOTUS, have shown themselves completely irresponsible when it comes to granting stays. I hope that we can have some reforms along these lines when people of sense are elected.


Nagin holds the Heinz chair at his university.

The Heinz Foundations funds anti death penalty efforts.

Nagin was the chair of this NRC study.

The Tides Foundations was one of the funding aganecies for this study.

The Tides Foundations funds anti death penalty efforts.

In any honorable consideration, no one would want Nagin to chair this study.

It is utterly absurd that the NIJ and NRC allowed Nagin to chair this.

Are there zero standards involving conflict of interests, now?

Why didn't Nagin refuse this appointment?

Shouldn't he have? Of course.

But NIJ and NRC should never have considered him. Why did they?

I am doing a review of the study, which has many problems, inclusive of the NRC, apparantly, flatly, misunderstanding the science.

I sincerely hope that some within the econometric community will blast this report.

Time will tell.

But the Nagin appointment and his acceptance of it are beyond a slap in the face to academic credibility.

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