Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? the Views of Leading Criminologists

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? the Views of Leading Criminologists

Article excerpt

For centuries the death penalty, often accompanied by barbarous refinements, has been trying to hold crime in check; yet crime persists. Why? Because the instincts that are warring in man are not, as the law claims, constant forces in a state of equilibrium.

--Albert Camus (1)


Ever since a young Edwin Sutherland first published research on the issue in 1925, (2) criminologists have been interested in the question of whether the death penalty is a more effective deterrent to criminal homicide than long-term imprisonment. At least until a decade ago, there was widespread consensus among criminologists that the death penalty could not be justified on deterrence grounds. In November 1989, in part because "social science research ha[d] found no consistent evidence of crime deterrence through execution," the American Society of Criminology passed a resolution condemning the death penalty, one of only two public policy positions the organization has ever taken. (3) In 1996, Radelet and Akers surveyed sixty-seven leading American criminologists regarding their opinion about the empirical research on deterrence and found that the overwhelming majority of the experts agreed that the death penalty never has been, is not, and never could be superior to long prison sentences as a deterrent to criminal violence. (4)

The research reported in this Article was designed to update the 1996 study and assess if any recent deterrence studies have modified the beliefs of the world's leading criminologists. The results indicate that only a small minority of top criminologists--10% or less, depending on how the question is phrased--believes that the weight of empirical research studies supports the deterrence justification for the death penalty.

These results come despite the publication of several widely-cited studies conducted in the last half dozen years (primarily by economists) that claim to show the death penalty has deterrent effects that criminologists have not spotted. (5) In 2002, the Washington Post published an article under the catchy title Murderous Pardons? about research by econometrician Naci Mocan purporting to find that each execution led to 5-6 fewer homicides, and for every three additional "pardons" of a death row inmate, there were 1-1.5 additional homicides. (6) A few months later, Emory University economist Paul H. Rubin and his colleagues began to publicize their work which found that each execution deterred approximately eighteen homicides. (7) Later that year, Dale Cloninger and Roberto Marchesini, economists in the School of Business Administration at the University of Houston, published a letter in the Wall Street Journal claiming that their research showed that each execution in Texas prevented between eleven and eighteen homicides. (8) In 2007, Professors Roy Adler and Michael Summers (a professor of Marketing and a professor of Quantitative Methods at Pepperdine University, respectively) (9) published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal claiming that their data showed each execution in the United States, from 1979-2004, prevented some seventy-four murders in the following year. (10) By late 2007, an article on the front page of the New York Times entitled Does the Death Penalty Save Lives? A New Debate announced that the recent articles on deterrence were "setting off an intense new debate about one of the central justifications for capital punishment." (11)

Are these new studies really "setting off an intense new debate"? What should the general public conclude about this morass of conflicting results and opinions? To be sure, most of the recent research that purports to find a deterrent effect has been critiqued (as we will discuss below), but that still leaves the layperson trying to decide between "he said, she said" exchanges and complex statistical debates that few can understand. Therefore, we decided to find some sort of answer by replicating the study conducted a dozen years ago by Michael Radelet and Ronald Akers in which they surveyed sixty-seven leading criminologists to see if there was consensus on whether the death penalty was superior as a deterrent to long term imprisonment. …

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