Does the death penalty discourage crime?

ECM sent this essay which explores whether capital punishment deters crime.


“Science does really draw a conclusion. It did. There is no question about it,” said Naci Mocan, an economics professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. “The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect.”

A 2003 study he co-authored, and a 2006 study that re-examined the data, found that each execution results in five fewer homicides, and commuting a death sentence means five more homicides. “The results are robust, they don’t really go away,” he said. “I oppose the death penalty. But my results show that the death penalty (deters) — what am I going to do, hide them?”

Statistical studies like his are among a dozen papers since 2001 that capital punishment has deterrent effects. They all explore the same basic theory — if the cost of something (be it the purchase of an apple or the act of killing someone) becomes too high, people will change their behavior (forego apples or shy from murder).

The studies all concluded that between 3 and 18 innocent lives were saved by each execution of a convicted killer.

9 thoughts on “Does the death penalty discourage crime?”

  1. I personally think more crimes should receive the death penalty – namely rape, child molestation, etc. I was excited when Louisiana passed the death penalty for child rape (unfortunately it was overturned)


  2. I’ve long been against the death penalty… not from a passivist perspective (I can respect the fidelity of a completely passivist view, I just can’t get there from here, so to speak).

    My thought has been, if we can turn the death penalty into life-without-chance-of-parole, then we give people a LONG time to contemplate eternity. Plenty of chances for God to work on their hearts, and prison missionaries to bring them hope eternal. For me, it’s worth the tax payer room and board to give every last opportunity for redemption in Christ Jesus.

    This kind of study may change my mind on that.


      1. I’m a lot more concerned about the eternal soul of a man, than I am about closure. There is only one thing worse than rape, murder, and child molestation in my reckoning: a human, made in the image and likeness of God, dieing, and being consigned to an eternal seperation from his Maker.

        The release thing is sadly true, and boggles the mind.


  3. One problem with the death penalty is – to over-simplify because of space limits – that capital crimes are so publicity intense that elected officials like district attorneys and mayors and therefore appointed ones like prosecutors and police chiefs and hired ones like forensic pathologists tend to make mistakes in their haste to satisfy public outcry to find a guilty person. Having practiced criminal defense law, in the U.S., I can assume you that while 90% of all cases are handled with even-handed fairness, that 10% includes those where officials’ relatives are involved and where a high-publicity capital crime in involved. Those two factors account for most of the miscarriages of justice in the American criminal system. And it is impossible to correct an erroneous execution.

    One point about the study: given the recidivism rate (about 86%) among felons in America, I suspect that once you account for repeaters, the best that can be said for capital punishment is that it prevents the dead person from erring again.


  4. For your consideration: do humans have a right to life? If so, where does this right come from, or what is it dependent upon? (Can it be taken away?)

    May we kill to deal with crime rates? If so, then it seems to me the ultimate crime rate is zero. Can we then kill all humans to prevent the spread of crime?


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