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The Death Penalty Saves Lives by Deterring Crime

David Muhlhausen, a Heritage Foundation research fellow for the Center for Data Analysis, has this article with the above title at U.S. News & World Report. He cites several of the studies noted on our deterrence page.  The full list of citations and abstracts is here.

The anti side is trying to create the impression that the deterrence debate is over and they have won.  They frequently cite a report by Nagin et al., funded in part by a government grant and published by a government agency, saying that the studies do not provide sufficient proof to base policy decisions. 

The paper clearly states in the front matter that it represents only the opinion of the named authors.  (It may not even represent that, as James Q. Wilson, by far the biggest name on the cover, died before the final report was issued.)  It is not any kind of official conclusion by the funding agency, but the other side tries to represent it as such. 

Opponents who are either especially mendacious or who have been misled by their own movement's cleverly worded half-truths will claim that deterrence has been affirmatively disproved.  No one who is both knowledgeable and honest claims that.


Decency evolves: What did the National Research Council conclude in its lengthy and comprehensive study of the issue?


"CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATION: The committee concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates. Therefore, the committee recommends that these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide. Consequently, claims that research demonstrates that capital punishment decreases or increases the homicide rate by a specified amount or has no effect on the homicide rate should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment."

Decency evolves: The report began with the following dedication: "This report is dedicated to James Q. Wilson for his long service to the National Research Council, his influential career of scholarship and public service, and his unblinking commitment to the principle that science requires us to interpret the evidence as it is, not as we want it to be." It included the following quote from him: “I’ve tried to follow the facts wherever they land.”

Did you read the original post at all? The National Research Council did not conclude anything.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations or agencies that provided support for the project.

Decency evolves: It was an impressive and well credentialed group, and an exhaustive study, which is not surprising given the fact that the study was underwritten by the National Academy of Sciences. Their conclusions were definitive that the research CJLF keeps trumpeting "is not informative on this subject and should not be considered in forming policy." It is morue than fair to point this out each and every time your organization or any other conservative policy group relies on these studies as proof of the allegation that "The Death Penalty Saves Lives By Deterring Crime."

If by "definitive" you mean the question is settled beyond reasonable debate, I have already explained why that is not so. There are other well credentialed people who disagree on what the evidence as a whole shows. There is also much room for disagreement on how much evidence is needed before we consider these studies as a basis for policy. Given that we are talking about sentences that are independently justified on retribution grounds alone, I think preponderance of the evidence is sufficient.

The conclusion may very well be a more a function of who was appointed to the committee than the actual science. Some years back there was a study of studies that showed exactly that -- the preexisting views of authors was a better predictor of outcome than anything else.

The effusive dedication to James Q. Wilson is actually more a source of suspicion than anything else. Due to his illness and death, we cannot be at all confident he had any significant input into the final product. Methinks the lead author -- a death penalty opponent -- doth effuse too much.

The one thing that is beyond serious debate is that deterrence has not been affirmatively disproven, yet I hear opponents assert that it has all the time.

Decency evolves: Professional death penalty proponents, including you and CJLF, like professional death penalty opponents, such as Death Penalty Focus, want to assume that you can know the unknowable to buttress your cause. The National Research Council report casts doubt on CJLFs position as well as DPFs, based on (1) the failure to account for the effects of the noncapital sanction components of the sanction regime for the punishment of homicide, (2) the use of incomplete or implausible models of potential murderers’ perceptions of and response to the capital punishment component of a sanction regime and (3) the existing studies use strong and unverifiable assumptions. Wasn't James Wilson on your board? What evidence do you have that he was prepare to dissent from these findings?

I am not nearly smart enough to know how one would conduct a useful study on the deterrent effect of the death penalty due to the lack of a "control group" - But, I do have at least one area to study where I think the deterrent effect would be most obvious on its face and that specific question would be -

"Does the death penalty deter prisoners already serving life sentences from killing either guards or prisoners?"

I think the answer is yes, and I think one might be able to study this using non-death penalty jurisdictions versus death penalty jurisdictions and get some fairly clear answers. Has this been studied?

Your failure to comprehend what I actually said and "straw man fallacy" attacks on things I didn't say are getting a bit tiresome.

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