Chapter 3: Is Capital Punishment an Effective Deterrent to Crime?
The Death Penalty and Deterrence: An Overview
Capital punishment backers traditionally cite two reasons why society is justified in executing certain criminals: retribution and deterrence. They claim that executions satisfy the public’s demand that murderers suffer punishment proportionate to their offense. The deterrence rationale rests on somewhat shakier ground, however, because of the difficulty of proving that the death penalty deters capital crimes.
Nonetheless, deterrence is invariably part of the debate. A 1985 study by Stephen K. Layson, an economist at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, shows that the death penalty deters more potential homicides than earlier studies had suggested.
Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida says the bill to limit condemned prisoners’ habeas corpus appeals “sends the message of swiftness and certainty of punishment that has been missing from our criminal justice system . . . and it goes a long way to restoring deterrence to the criminal justice system.” [A habeas corpus appeal allows state and federal inmates to have their cases reviewed by a federal judge, usually after they have lost previous appeals.]
But Leigh Dingerson of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says capital punishment has no deterrent effect. “The real implication of [the McCollum] bill is that we’ll see cases with significant constitutional error slide through the courts without review,” she says. “Most death row inmates were very poorly...
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Capital Punishment Is a Deterrent
Sept. 1, 1995, marked the end of a long fight for justice in New York and the beginning of a new era in our state that promises safer communities, fewer victims of crime, and renewed personal freedom. For 22 consecutive years, my predecessors had ignored the urgent calls for justice from our citizens—their repeated and pressing demands for the death penalty in New York State. Even after the legislature passed a reinstatement of the capital punishment law, it was vetoed for 18 years in a row. (Twelve of those vetoes came from the pen of former Gov. Mario Cuomo.)
That was wrong. To fight and deter crime effectively, individuals must have every tool government can afford them, including the death penalty. Upon taking office, I immediately began the process of reinstating the death penalty. Two months later, I signed the death penalty into law for the most heinous and ruthless killers in our society.
A Governmental Priority
Protecting the residents of New York against crime and violence is my first priority. Indeed, it is the most fundamental duty of government. For too long, coddling of criminals allowed unacceptable levels of violence to permeate the streets. They were not subject to swift and certain punishment and, as a result, violent criminal acts were not deterred.
For more than two decades, New York was without the death penalty. During this time, fear of crime was compounded by the fact that, too often, it...
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Society Needs the Death Penalty to Deter Murderers
Perhaps it is foolish to be optimistic, but the news on crime of late is not all that bad. First and foremost, crime is finally going down. According to FBI statistics, the overall crime index has declined 11 percent since 1991 and is now the lowest it has been since 1985. Violent crimes are at the lowest since 1989. Murders have declined 13 percent since 1991, rape is at its lowest level since 1989, and burglary at the lowest level in two decades. The trend is fairly uniform across the country, with the biggest cities recording the largest drops.
A Dramatic Drop in Crime
At the top of the list is New York City, where crime has plummeted to levels that only a few years ago were unimaginable. Since Mayor Rudy Giuliani took office in 1994, violent crime has fallen an astonishing 40 percent. Murders in New York, which peaked at 2,200 in 1990, fell to 767 in 1997, below the 986 recorded in 1968.
The change of mood in the nation’s largest city has been dramatic. Just as crime captured public spaces in the 1960’s, leaving the streets to the perpetrators, so a “virtuous cycle” is now returning them to the public. Even at night, public places such as Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge have become crowded with strollers and passers-by. These well-meaning pedestrians have deprived criminals of their former habitat, serving as a tangible check on crime and disorderly behavior.
All this has been a triumphant confirmation...
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Executions Reduce the Murder Rate
As citizens of a society, we must control ourselves, and we must have a deterrent from committing criminal acts. The worst criminal act is the willful and malicious taking of another’s life.
The worst crime should have the worst punishment that society can impose, and that is the taking of a murderer’s life expeditiously through our court process.
The taking of a life by society, through a court of law, eliminates the personal vendetta and sends a message that society will not tolerate this criminal action.
Society’s message is very weak today, when we delay the execution by 15 to 20 years, but the message is there. Ninety-six people who have been on California’s death row for 16 years or longer is also a strong message.
In California in 1952, we executed 11⁄2 years after sentencing and the murder rate was 2.4 per 100,000. The rate climbed to 5.4 per 100,000 by 1967, when we stopped executing altogether.
The U.S. Supreme Court stopped all executions in 1976, when the rate had climbed to 10.1 per 100,000. By 1980 the rate climbed to 14.4 per 100,000 when executions started in the United States again. The murder rate in California declined to 10.5 by 1983.
In 1993, after executing Robert Alton Harris in California, the number had reached 12.9 per 100,000. By the time we had executed four, the rate had dropped to 9.0 per 100,000.
In the state of Texas in 1980, when they resumed...
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Capital Punishment Is Not a Deterrent
The Holy Father Pope John Paul II has challenged us to begin the new millennium with a renewed commitment to the Gospel of life. An important way that we can promote the civilization of love in the new millennium is to call for the abolishment of the death penalty. Our task is to work for a more just society and for real solutions to alleviate crime and violence in our communities. The more respect we have for life, the safer our communities will become.
In a growing culture of death, devoid of morality, we face the life-threatening issues such as abortion, immoral genetic practices and experimentation, civil strife, nuclear war, ethnic conflicts, euthanasia and capital punishment. These various assaults on life cannot be melded into a single problem. They are distinct, complicated issues that require individual attention, but they do form pieces of a larger pattern. When human life under any circumstance is not held as sacred in a society, all human life is diminished and threatened.
The church’s pro-life stance is consistent and is based on the theological affirmation that the person is made in the image of God, the philosophical assertion of the dignity of every person, and the church’s social teaching that society and the state exist to serve the person. Because we hold the sacredness of human life, the taking of even one person’s life is a most serious event. Historically, the teaching of the church has allowed the taking of human...
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Capital Punishment May Cause Violence to Increase
It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another but similars that breed their kind. —George Bernard Shaw
The rash of violent crimes committed in the past year by juveniles has shocked the nation. Our alarm increases with each new report of the location, body count, and young ages of the children involved.
The entire nation was horrified in the spring of 1998 when two boys aged twelve and fourteen opened fire on their schoolmates in Jonesboro, Arkansas, killing a teacher and four students and wounding ten other students. Similar episodes have unfolded in 1998 in Mississippi, Oregon, and Kentucky. The tremors created by these crimes have shaken us all, including those of us locked away here in this Texas prison.
We are all left struggling to comprehend the rage that underlies such crimes. What would motivate seemingly normal children to perpetrate such violence?
Given the shock and anger surrounding these crimes, it’s not surprising that in Texas (the death-penalty capital of the Western world) a legislator has proposed a new crime bill that would lower the age at which one can be executed to eleven years old. Representative Jim Pitts, himself the father of a fifth-grader, claims his office received hundreds of phone calls after he introduced the bill: “About 60 percent in favor and 40 percent against.”...
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