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I always find these discussions interesting. However, the issue was settled by the Supreme Court in the 1970's by bifurcating the guilt phase and punishment phase. I thought the Supreme Court came to a fair compromise.

Overall, liberals are against capital punishment and conservatives for it. The victims rights movement suggests that capital punishment is an effective deterrent.



That's generally true, but the question is, why are liberals usually opposed and conservatives usually in favor of it? I can see two broad thread of thought in this discussion:

Some people want to talk about whether CP works well (that is, does it deter crime and can it be applied with only extremely low errors). That's an empirical question, albeit one with enough complications that it's hard to get a solid answer. But we can at least imagine having a solid answer to that question, even if we don't have it now. A lot of people would stop supporting CP if they were convinced that it either didn't deter any murders, or was too hard to make sure you were executing the right person.

Others want to talk about the morality of CP. That's a question that can't be answered empirically, though it's clearly a big issue. (Crucifying convicted murderers would surely have an even bigger deterrent effect than painless execution, and crucifying their whole family a bigger deterrent still. The reason we're not going to do those things isn't an issue of whether the policies would work, it's an issue of morality.)

It's interesting to ask why more liberals than conservatives come to one side or another of these issues. Is this fundamentally a fact-based disagreement (like with arguments about the best trade policy), or a value-based disagreement (like with abortion)?


"One commenter asks whether capital punishment 'really deter[s] the type of person who actually does the murdering?'"

I believe I was that commenter. Obviously, when I said "the type of person who does the murdering" I didn't mean the actual murderers, who by definition were not deterred. I meant, of course, the demographic pool (defined by factors including SES and race) from which the murderers disproportionately come. (Hint: it's likely not the same demographic as commenters on this blog).
I questioned whether the alleged deterrent effect of the death penalty can be demonstrated specifically with respect to that demographic, and I still do.


In 1983, 62.5% of released prisoners were arrested again within 3 years. In 1994, the rate was 67.5%. [Bureau of Justice] Most people who went to prison were *NOT* deterred from committing another crime! 184K out of 272K prisoners decided to rob, rape and kill again (statistic is from 15 states, so the national number is much higher). How many executions would it take to deter this many criminals?

In the past ten years, the crime rate has plummeted across the country because (1) the crack epidemic burnt out, (2) there are fewer young males in high crime zones, and (3) the economy lifted poor people a bit.

I don't know what specific government policies could further reduce the crime rate, but my hunch is that growing the economy one extra percent does more to reduce crime than 1000 executions a year. Free condoms would probably reduce the future crime rate more than CP. A certain low level of crime will always exist in a big country. Grow a pair and deal with it.

My point is that we are having an emotional debate about an insignificant tool in crime prevention. If CP is primarily about vengence, then let's sate America's bloodlust with a spectacle worthy of ancient Rome. But don't whimper behind Nietsche's back when you see real blood.

PS. If torture reduces the recidivism rate substantially, would it be worth it? If we put it to a vote, I'll bet Americans would pass it by a wide majority.



One other factor in the lower crime rate is that there are a lot of criminals currently locked up. One pretty obvious (though expensive to all involved) way to keep recidivism down is to just not let the criminals back out. I'm not saying that's a great way, just that it does seem to work.

I agree that CP is probably not a very big factor in deterring murders, though I'm not any kind of expert. The thing is, everyone knows that if you kill someone, the police will take it very seriously, and you're reasonably likely to at least go to prison for it. And CP as implemented now seems to have so much uncertainty and delay, its deterrent effect is probably pretty attenuated.

My sense is that most people approach the CP issue based more on emotions or moral judgements (compassion vs. revenge) than on a cold-blooded analysis of number of innocents executed vs number of prospective murderers deterred.


Well said. I totally agree with you. The point you are making here does make sense.


I agree with you the way you view the issue. It is also interesting to see different viewpoints & learn useful things in the discussion.

Eric Gates

Just wondering what you think should be the punishment for an executive who steals billions from investors (or a board that looks the other way).

It seems correct that a large number of people commit small property crimes when the deterrent is low, as is clearly the case in today's world.

But it seems equally clear that a small number of people commit large crimes when the deterrent doesn't even equal the potential payoff.

I am with you--capital punishment. One CEO and that might wake them up eh?

I. J. Ucé

I have no doubt revenge had an adaptive survival value in the "ancestral environment". However, this is not a reason to support the satisfaction of this instinct in the modern context. In addition, it can be reasonably argued that in the South, were the majority of executions take place, there exists a psychic schism; Christianity explicitly admonishes the believer, "... Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smite you on the one cheek offer also the other." and the ever popular, "Thou shall not kill." (Bible literalists tend to be selective about which tenets they abide by). Further, for males, the "ancestral environment" also hardwired the indiscriminant spreading of one's seed into our psyche, yet we are not only expected to control ourselves, but are punished if we fail to do so in situations where "seed spreading" is inappropriate or criminal.

Finally, regarding the secondary deterrent effect, one must equally acknowledge cases where exculpatory evidence is not clear and therefore the accused pleads guilty, in spite of their innocence, in order not expose themselves to the death penalty.

David Hammer

"one must equally acknowledge cases where exculpatory evidence is not clear and therefore the accused pleads guilty, in spite of their innocence, in order not expose themselves to the death penalty."

I doubt that this happens very often, outside of made-for-TV-movies. What does happen is that someone who has committed a homicide, but has a technical defense of some sort, will plead guilty to manslaughter or aggravated assault, or even some non-capital form of murder, rather than test the defense at trial. People who are truly innocent -- who have been misidentified by witnesses, for example -- almost always insist on trial.

Eric Rasmusen

I wonder if the blog might have a post focussing just on the accuracy of criminal procedure. My impression is that it is inefficiently accurate for capital cases compared to, say, life imprisonment cases.

Eric Rasmusen

One way economists look at criminal penalties is as the price to the criminal of committing a crime. If I want to assault someone, I can do it if I am willing to pay the expected penalty--- just guessing, I could beat you to a pulp (nonfatally) for a 10% probability of 10 months in prison-- that is, for 30 days in prison. (Let's suppose I'm judgement-proof too, to keep things simple.)

In this sense, people who oppose the death penalty put a very low value on human life. I can murder you (or you plus 10 other people) if I am willing to pay a certain probability-- let us say, 50%--- of 40 years in prison. The death penalty would at least make me pay a 50% probability of losing my own life. Since my life may not be a very high quality one (I being a despicable murderer), this might still be a good deal for me, but it raises the price to the maximum possible, torture aside.


My comment is somewhat related to Mr. Curley's... it seems to me that you haven't refuted at least one significant economic argument against capital punishment. You call for more efficient systems of appeals, to increase the deterrent effects and decrease the cost of imposing the death penalty. Granted the moral acceptability of the death penalty, it's certainly logical to want to avoid wasting public money. However, I suspect there is only a limited scope for such savings, since the public, reasonably, wants to make sure the system has iron-clad protections. So we're going to spend a large sum of money no matter what. Is this the best use of our crime-prevention dollars? Perhaps we could get significantly more deterrence by spending our money elsewhere, on more police, speedier trials, etc.

There's a political aspect to this as well: I have the impression that many politicians use their pro-death penalty stance as a way to deflect political pressure to do other, more effective things to reduce crime rates.

"Dude" argues that "we tried that" with job training, etc., and it didn't work. It's my impression that actually, the Nixon Administration spent a fair sum on drug training, and it *was* effective. More to the point, police depts. seem to do a better job now... so they might be able to use extra money more efficently than they did in the past.


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