Does the death penalty deter crime?Seventeen states have the death penalty as an option for convicted criminals. Most states, then, do not have this option. A reason often cited is that the death...

Does the death penalty deter crime?

Seventeen states have the death penalty as an option for convicted criminals. Most states, then, do not have this option. A reason often cited is that the death penalty does not deter crime in a significant way. Yet, in 2007, a study from Pepperdine University found that “every inmate who is executed results in 74 fewer deaths the following year.” And, as many people argue, it certainly deters that particular convict from ever committing another crime. Should more states enact the death penalty? 

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This always strikes me as a very interesting question. It presupposes that the goal of the death penalty is and always has been the deterrence of further or future crime. If this is not and has not historically been the goal of death penalties, then the question of whether it does or does not deter crime has no bearing upon the larger question of should the death penalty continue as a judicial practice.

I'd suggest that the idea of crime deterrence is a newly overlaid goal that clouds the historical goal of the death penalty. Though not an historian nor an anthropologist, I believe I speak correctly in saying that the historic goal, throughout eras and civilizations, has been punishment for crimes against individuals or society. Again, being none of the above, I think I speak correctly in saying that the goal of deterring crimes came about after 20th century attempts at prison reform and the humanistic rejection of "punishment" as a justifiable stance against crime and criminals.

Whether more states should have the death penalty, previously called "capital punishment," really depends upon the actual goal being pursued. If a state's goal is to punish for crimes against individuals or society, then, yes, for fitting crimes (not petty larceny!), the state should enact the death penalty. If, on the other hand, the state's goal is to deter further and future crime, then perhaps not, perhaps using one human being, who is not undergoing just social punishment, to deter other human beings is an unjust manipulation of the first human being.

This argument evades the question of whether the death penalty does or does not deter crime because the argument is predicated on an altogether different moral argument, one to which effective deterrence is immaterial. As a final note, when death rates are reduced after one execution, as Pepperdine discloses, the question has to be asked whether the drop in rates is due to judges actions in withholding the death penalty or due to criminals being much more judicious in their crime choices.  

Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I personally don't believe the death penalty serves to prevent the crimes that it punishes.  My logic for this is that most of the crimes committed that are punished by the death penalty lack logic.  Mass murderers aren't thinking logically when they carry out their plots, and the man who comes home and kills his wife and her lover in bed is acting out of passion and emotion rather than logic.

For much of my life I was a supporter of the death penalty, but I really am not now.  One of my biggest reasons for my philosophical shift is the simple fact that I don't think it is a proper deterrent.  I'm not saying people who commit terrible crimes don't deserve to die, but they aren't thinking about that when they commit the crime.  Some people say that the death people will make people think twice about murder.  I just don't believe people are usually thinking at that moment, or they aren't in the right frame of mind to properly process the consequences.

Michael Ugulini eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with post #1, capital punishment certainly does prevent the person (who is found guilty and executed) from ever committing a crime again - so I guess in that sense it's good to have one of those people out of the system.

I'm not sure that it deters crime all the time - it depends on who is committing the crime. Some may think twice about committing a crime if they are not in an irrational state and actually take some time to consider the consequences of their action(s). However, some people are so irrational, under the influence of who knows what, and/or bent on revenge that they do not consider their actions. Therefore, no overhanging threat of future capital punishment coming down on them will stop them from committing an act they feel compelled to commit.

Death Penalty Information Center

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that we are fooling ourselves if we think that statistics can actually prove this one way or the other.  With human behavior, there are too many different factors that have an impact and we cannot isolate the impact of the death penalty itself.  We would have to consider all sorts of other variables from levels of education to effectiveness of police protection to the amount of television watched.  We would have to look at the degree to which potential criminals are even aware of death penalty laws and how much it impacts their thinking.  All of this would be exceedingly difficult to measure in any valid way.  Therefore, we simply cannot know the answer to this question.

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with post #3, as society is too complex to be distilled into simple statistics or singular studies.  I'm sure with some searching, I could find other studies that suggest there is no correlation between the death penalty and criminal deterrence.

Only normal, sane people react to deterrents, as they still fear consequences, or can recognize them, and they have morals and values that prevent them from killing whether there is a death penalty or not.  Murderers are most often insane to some degree, and lack the ability to function normally in society, so I believe the existence of capital punishment is relatively meaningless when it comes to lowering violent crime rates.

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Most statistics show that the threat of the death penalty does not deter murderers from killing, although the stat shown in the first post is certainly interesting. Nevertheless, I support the death penalty as a fair and just penalty for people who take other people's lives, and rational people (but not necessarily career criminals who use guns during their crimes) are bound to stop and think about the consequences before deciding that murder is a reasonable action.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I do not think the death penalty deters crime.  In some cases it even encourages it.  If you know you are going to be put to death for one crime you committed, there is no reason not to keep on committing worse and worse crimes until you are stopped.