Does the death penalty deter crime?

This post has a twin post which talks about the evidence against capital punishment from the Bible.

Why do people support the death penalty? Because research conducted by multiple teams of scholars at multiple universities have shown that 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).

And specifically:

• Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University. (Other studies have estimated the deterred murders per execution at three, five and 14).

• The Illinois moratorium on executions in 2000 led to 150 additional homicides over four years following, according to a 2006 study by professors at the University of Houston.

• Speeding up executions would strengthen the deterrent effect. For every 2.75 years cut from time spent on death row, one murder would be prevented, according to a 2004 study by an Emory University professor.

In case anyone is wondering what sort of crimes are deterred by the death penalty, you can read this graphic description of a recent death-penalty crime.

What sort of crimes are eligible for the death penalty?

Here’s an example of a dealth-penalty eligible crime from the Hartford Courant. (WARNING: graphic!)


A Superior Court jury today sentenced Steven Hayes to death for the murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela, during a seven-hour home invasion, robbery and arson at their Cheshire home in July 2007.

Outside the courthouse after the verdicts, Hawke-Petit’s father, the Rev. Richard Hawke, said “There are some people who do not deserve to live in God’s world.”

Asked what he had in his heart, Dr. William Petit Jr. struggled with his answer. “….Probably many of you have kids,” he said, pausing to choke back tears. “Michaela was an 11-year-old little girl…tortured and killed in her own bedroom, surrounded by her stuffed animals….”

Petit then talked about his daughter Hayley’s bright future and her strength and the children that his wife, Jennifer, helped.

“So, I was really thinking of the tremendous loss” during the verdict, Petit said, adding that he was pleased with it, but “mostly I was sad for the loss we have all suffered.”

Asked if he thought there’d be closure now, Petit said, “There’s never closure. There’s a hole…. with jagged edges…that may smooth out with time, but the hole in your heart and the hole in your soul” remains.

“This isn’t about revenge,” Petit said. “Vengeance belongs to the Lord. This is about justice.”

[…]The jury sentenced Hayes to death on six counts: killing Hawke-Petit and Michaela and Hayley in the course of a single action; killing a child under the age of 16; killing Hawke-Petit in the course of a kidnapping; killing Hayley in the course of a kidnapping; killing Michaela in the course of a kidnapping; and killing Hawke-Petit in the course of a sexual assault.

[…]Hayes, 47, of Winsted, was convicted Oct. 5 of breaking into the Petit home, beating Petit, tying up and torturing the family as Hayes and another man ransacked the home for cash and valuables and tortured the family for seven hours. Testimony during Hayes’ trial showed that at one point in the break-in, Hayes forced Hawke-Petit to go to the bank to withdraw money. During that time, according to testimony, Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted Michaela Petit, 11.

When Hawke-Petit and Hayes returned from the bank, Hayes raped and strangled Hawke-Petit. The house was doused with gasoline and set on fire as the intruders fled, testimony showed. Hayley, 17, and Michaela died of smoke inhalation.

[…]Prosecutors used the words of Hayes’ younger brother Matthew to counter testimony that home-invasion crime was an aberration in Hayes otherwise troubled but basically nonviolent life.

Matthew Hayes portrayed his brother as a conniving, sadistic, violent thief who saw Matthew take countless beatings from his brutal father for Steven Hayes’ misdeeds. At one point, Steven Hayes held a gun to Matthew’s head, according to the statement, which was given to state police after the home invasion.

Examples of Hayes’ sadistic behavior toward his brother included hooking Matthew to the garage door by his belt and raising the door up and down, and holding Matthew’s hand to a red-hot burner. Matthew said his brother’s life of crime was not a result of bad parenting or poor childhood. He said Hayes never learned to take responsibility for his actions.

Sometimes, I think that we have stopped judging others because we do not want to be judged ourselves. We hope that by not judging anyone, that we will somehow escape being judged by anyone – especially by God himself. The opposition to punishing the guilty is, I think, really just a way of expressing our desire to do away with punishment entirely. We would rather have the freedom to sin with impunity than to protect the victims of sinfulness from harm. We want to escape responsibility for anything we do that harms others.

Dennis Prager has a neat expression from Rabbinical literature that describes the problem with people who are anti-death-penalty: “those who are kind to the cruel, will be cruel to the kind”.

I actually consider the death penalty to be an important test of whether a person is a Christian or not, because it shows what they think about the serious of moral crimes, and whether they accept what research says, and what the Bible says, instead of valuing peer approval more than justice. It tells you how seriously a person feels about their own sinfulness. Death penalty supporters don’t view sinners as victims – they view victims as victims, and they believe that evil people need to be punished. It’s hard for me to see how someone can claim to be a Christian and oppose justice.

15 thoughts on “Does the death penalty deter crime?”

  1. Perhaps a “useful statistic” to look at would be the number of murderers who become “repeat offenders” after receiving the death penalty. If memory serves me correctly it is approximately 0.


  2. WK,
    Not sure if you’ve posted a response to this question before, but what can we do to ensure that no innocent people are executed in the case of wrongful conviction ?

    What criteria do you think must be satisfied in terms of the evidence of guilt before determining that the death penalty is suitable punishment for the defendant ?


    1. I think that this is an issue for the legislators, who are accountable to the people. I would say that beyond a reasonable doubt is fine, because the rights of the accused have to be balanced with the rights of society to have a deterrent in place. As the studies show, there is a public protection motive for allowing the death penalty. I wouldn’t let procedural concerns about how to convict blur the main point.


  3. It is called the death penalty, not the death deterrent. Many murders are committed in a moment of passion; thoughts about consequences and punishment are not entertained in a fit of rage. That comes later when the actor has calmed down. Whether the death penalty is a deterrent or not is a moot point. The point of having a death penalty is justice.

    The actual deterrent should be the successful socialization of the individual by the family – teach self control and moderation instead of the macho, violent BS picked up on TV, video games, popular music and the movies. Our entire culture has become corrupted and our family structures hopelessly comprised by the government.


    1. Well, I cited peer-reviewed studies showing the deterrent effect. If the death penalty saves just one innocent victim of a different crime, then it’s worth it.


  4. I support the death penalty and feel that it could be a much better deterrent if it was applied in an expeditious manner after the offense was committed. That is not happening.

    Living in New York where the courts will not allow the full application of capital crime laws is very frustrating, but the homicide rate in NYC has declined without this penalty. NYC used to have almost 2,000 murders a year, it is now down to 515 in 2011 (preliminary FBI UCR). There is a lot behind crime stats that has nothing to do with penalties. Modern violent crime reduction strategies do not incorporate this penalty as a recommendation. But then again, perhaps they should.

    I appreciate your blog and visit here every day.


  5. I wonder: is the argument from deterrence for the death penalty consequentialist? It seems like it would have to go something like this:

    If the death penalty deters murders, then it is justified… then modus ponens it out. But is that how the argument goes? Am I wrong here?

    If so then it is definitely consequentialist. We will carry out the death penalty because the consequence is fewer murders.



    1. Ha! I saw your post where you talked about the possibility of Christians not liking the death penalty.

      Now, I argued that the Bible is OK with the death penalty in a previous post and cited Wayne Grudem, expert theologian:

      So my evidential argument is merely a secular way of explaining to secular people why the Bible is right about what it says.

      I’m sure if people realize this, but the death penalty is pro-life. It is pro-life because it takes seriously what was done to the victim. And it is pro-life because it deters future crimes. A murderer is guilty of a serious crime, and if we have to choose between saving the murderer or saving future victims of criminals, then we choose the future innocent victims. Opposition to the death penalty isn’t pro-life, and that’s what the evidence clearly shows.

      Here’s an SBTS professor making the first point about retribution being justified BECAUSE of the value of life:


      Public support for the death penalty isn’t vengeful, it’s biblical, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Russell Moore said Nov. 5 on the television show “Kentucky Tonight.”

      […]Moore, who supports the use of the death penalty, argued that Romans 13 gives the government the right to punish those who do wrong. Paul’s reference to the government bearing the sword (Romans 13:4), Moore contended, is a specific reference to capital punishment.

      “I believe that Scripture mandates that the government take this position in order to preserve public justice and order,” he said.

      […]The public’s support for the death penalty — which is shown in opinion polls — reflects a certain value for human life, Moore said, as persons recognize that taking the life of another human being demands an ultimate punishment.


      1. Wintery,

        Thanks for the response and taking the time to post a bit more on the topic. I’m a bit surprised by you saying I don’t like the death penalty. I’m in favor of the death penalty, but I personally see how people could argue for the other side from a Christian perspective.

        I find the deterrence argument to be slightly persuasive. I am a bit wary of its seemingly consequentialist roots.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s