Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Letters

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Letters

Article excerpt

Claims that the death penalty deters murder are fragile

In her Dec. 14 Opinion piece, "Why not all executions deter murder," Joanna Shepherd suggests that executions deter homicides in only one in five states that impose death sentences. These are the states that execute the most people. Later she claims that low execution rates have the perverse effect of actually increasing homicides.

Unfortunately, Ms. Shepherd ignores the well-accepted scientific standard that strongly cautions against broad acceptance of research until its claims can be replicated under a variety of tests and conditions. We have been undertaking just such an effort, using data Shepherd generously shared. Our preliminary results suggest that her claims of deterrence are fragile and inconsistent.

The results vary when we use alternate measures of homicide rates, or when we incorporate confounding factors, such as drug epidemics, that might better explain variations in homicide rates. Perhaps most important, Shepherd fails to compare the death penalty to alternative punishments that also cut into crime. Hence, her claims cannot address the crucial policy question of whether the death penalty provides a stronger deterrent effect than a sentence of life without parole.

Regrettably, many of America's strongest death penalty advocates have uncritically seized on Shepherd's unstable results to argue for expansion of capital punishment and against moratoriums such as that legislated recently in New Jersey. Such uncritical acceptance can easily lead to expensive and dangerous public policies. Until this research survives the rigors of replication and thorough testing of alternative hypotheses, it provides absolutely no foundation for life and death decisions. Jeffrey FaganNew YorkProfessor of Law and Public HealthColumbia UniversitySteven DurlaufMadison, Wis.Professor of EconomicsUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonThe authors are members of the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Research Council. …

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