Could the Death Penalty Really Be a Deterrent?

I’ve never bought the argument that the death penalty deters crime. Would someone about to commit a murder not act because of the legal consequences? Seems like wishful thinking to me, but a new study from two well-respected universities suggests just that.

A study by researchers from Sam Houston State and Duke universities found a brief drop in murder rates in Texas in the month immediately following an execution.

The AP reports today:

As many as 60 people might be alive today in Texas because two dozen convicted killers were executed last year in the nation’s most active capital punishment state, according to a study of death penalty deterrence by researchers from Sam Houston State University and Duke University.

A review of executions and homicides in Texas by criminologist Raymond Teske at Sam Houston in Huntsville and Duke sociologists Kenneth Land and Hui Zheng concludes that a monthly decline of 0.5 to 2.5 homicides in Texas follows each execution.

“Evidence exists of modest, short-term reductions in the numbers of homicides in Texas in the month of or after executions,” said the study published in a recent issue of Criminology, a journal of the American Society of Criminology.

The study examined data from 1994 to 2005, which is a pretty healthy set of numbers.

You don’t have to be a statistician to see all kinds of problems with this correlation. Small fluctuations in murders could be attributed to all kinds of causes — everything from changes in the weather to fluctuations in the economy. And the calculation itself is complex because the overall violent crime rate has been falling.

But it’s still an interesting hypothesis — that executions cause a short-term drop in crime. I can envision the scenario: an execution garners local media coverage, which could have an impact on murder rates while it’s on people’s minds. The numbers would soon return to the norm. There’s no lasting deterrent to crime, only a temporary drop.

It’s a fascinating idea that warrants more study.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

Published at 12:00 am CST
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