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COREY: If one lethal injection murder would "deter" a murder on the street, then one beheading [sh]ould deter 10.

In theory, sure.

COREY: There is just one problem, lots of research shows that it isn't the severity of the punishment that deters but the certainty of punishment.

We now disagree. The above is misleading, perhaps unintentionally. Punishment is analyzed by probability of punishment times severity. So, a 50% chance of a fine of $10,000 is equivalent to a 100% chance of a fine of $5,000. (.5 x 10,000 = 1 x 5,000). You can tweak either the likelihood of punishment or the severity of punishment to acheive the intended deterrence level.

In studies that Gary Becker pioneered, he demonstrated that one can raise the severity of fines while the chance of getting caught remains constant, which results in a reduction of administration costs (e.g., having the death penalty costs less than maintaining a police force of a million). So, it is more efficient, all things being equal, to institute the death penalty than to increase the numbers of beat cops.


Something about the low crime rates existing in countries that do not use capital punishment invalidates the argument that it is an effective deterent for me.

Furthermore, I think that reducing capital punishment to an econometric problem with a mathematical solution removes a lot of the complexity implicit in the moral problem. I just have a hard time reconciling numbers as a dictation of a state'ss moral obligation.


1) As a supporter of the death penalty (who thinks that Kant got it exactly right when he said that if a society were to be dissolved, the FIRST thing that must be done before dissolution is to execute every remaining murderer in prison, and who also suggested that we dignify the murderer as a rational moral being by executing him), I rather like the idea of bringing back the old custom of public executions (a la Machiavelli) to maximize the deterrent effect. Just make sure that the crime is recounted in graphic detail before the execution lest people misplace their compassion.

2) If improving educational and job opportunities is the way to reduce crime, why did crime rates skyrocket after the Great Society? Indeed, as the late Ed Banfield pointed out, more schooling, more income, and more opportunity may very well increase crime rates in certain circumstances (e.g., urban versus rural areas).

3) If capital punishment is a deterrent, it should be effective at any given crime rate, whether low or high. I don't think that Becker and Posner are arguing that the threat of capital punishment is the single most important determinant of the murder rate (I presume that moral capital and the likelihood of being caught rank higher).

bob tollison

Do you think that the death penalty truncates marginal deterrence so that we have more multiple murders than a situation where additional punishment is meted out before execution? This was more or less the medieval system. In modern terms electrocution is probably a stronger deterrent to single murders than lethal injection.

Ross Firestone

Since the death penalty was abolished in Great Britaiin in 1965 the murder rate has increased rapidly. This is prima facie evidence for its deterrent effect.

For details see: 'Malice aforethought' makes a would-be murderer think again, By Ferdinand Mount, 23/12/2005, Daily Telegraph


Is it possible that making prisons the deterent criminals will be less willing to trade their freedom for stark prison conditions? Is is cruel and unusual to limit perks (fitness, computers, television, etc.) to only model prisoners. IF prisons were designed to provide the deterrent to future crime, and LIFE in prison meant that life would be without the "comforts" of home, recidivism might decrease.

To kill or not to kill? How about taking away the weight rooms, drugs, and sex from prisoners?


IF prisons were designed to provide the deterrent to future crime, and LIFE in prison meant that life would be without the "comforts" of home, recidivism might decrease.Harsh punishment might deter first time criminals - prticularly for minor crimes. For example, if speeding resulted in an automatic one year prison sentence, there would be a lot less speeding.It is not clear, however, that harsh punishment would deter repeat offenders. If the punishment wasn't enough to deter them the first time, it is unlikely to deter them a second time unless they fundamentally change their world view.Many, if not most, violent criminals grew up in harsh abusive environments. If anything, harsh treatment in prison will only reinforce the world view that led them to commit their first offense.Most crimes are not punished with life in prison which means that eventually the criminals end up back in society. Obviously, it is very desirable that criminals leave prison with a different world view than when they committed their original crime.


In Posner and Becker's nearly 2,000 words on capital punishment, the word "race" appears not once.


You should all read about how the wise "Vlad" kept his kingdom from being conquered by the otoman empire!


If you are interested in reviewing the recent deterrence studies, some of the citations can be found in notes 8 and 19-21 of this paper by Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule: http://www.aei-brookings.org/admin/authorpdfs/page.php?id=1131

A. Zarkov

"European countries have higher per capita property crime rates than the United States does, although violent crimes are still considerably more common in the United States."

Not if you believe Interpol. Several years ago I checked the homicide rates at the Interpol web stite for various European countries and found some surprises. For example to cite but a few, Belgium had a homicide rate about equal to the US, while Scotland (but not the UK as a whole) had three times the murder rate of the US. But today if you visit the Interpol web site, you will find they have now closed off crime statisticsÔøΩÔøΩavailable for law enforcement only.ÔøΩ But you can still get some using the ÔøΩwaybackÔøΩ engine. Why would Interpol do such a thing? IÔøΩll speculate that the Europeans were so embarrassed they pressured Interpol to remove access.


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