Why do some people support the death penalty? Because research conducted by multiple teams of scholars at multiple universities have shown that the death penalty 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).
• 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 death-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 the idea that we will finally face judgment.We seem to be able to ignore the victim’s needs and act as if the criminal is the victim. We act as if deterring a crime with punishment has no impact on the decision making of people who are considering whether to commit the crime. But crime isn’t some random action – criminals do consider what will happen to them if they are caught. We send potential killers a message by being willing to punish the ones we catch. But if we treat them like victims, then others watching are not going to be deterred from committing crimes.
One thought on “What is the purpose of capital punishment? Does it deter crime?”
This is, of course, one area where there is a definite split between Protestant and Roman Catholic: trad Prots are pro-capital punishment; trad Caths are generally anti-, because their Church is.