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The death penalty as a deterrent
Posted by: Billy Hollis on Sunday, November 18, 2007

Via Tim Blair, I saw this article in the New York Times about new research on the death penalty, which says:
According to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives. For each inmate put to death, the studies say, 3 to 18 murders are prevented.

The effect is most pronounced, according to some studies, in Texas and other states that execute condemned inmates relatively often and relatively quickly.
No doubt the methodology will be picked apart, because it's an article of faith among some that the death penalty does not deter murder and other violent crime. I've always thought such an absolutist position was wrong on its face, because at a bare minimum an executed criminal will never kill again whereas escaped convicted murderers have been known to commit additional murders.

I've always suspected, though, that the deterrent effect was much larger than that, because I believe humans, even stupid, immoral ones, still respond to incentives. A critic of earlier death penalty studies (which concluded that the death penalty was ineffective) agrees:
To economists, it is obvious that if the cost of an activity rises, the amount of the activity will drop.

“To say anything else is to brand yourself an imbecile,” said Professor Wolfers, an author of the Stanford Law Review article criticizing the [earlier] death penalty studies.
There are those who simply regard the death penalty as so repugnant that they can never support it. Such folks need, then, to come to terms with the possibility that they support something (a ban on the death penalty) that increases violent death. I realize to some, that doesn't matter, because they don't even believe in violence for self defense:
Me: So what if someone breaks into your house, armed with a knife. Wouldn't you rather have the means to stop him from 15 feet away rather than getting into close combat with him?

Mitt Guy: Oh, God, no!

Me: You'd rather fight him hand-to-hand?

Mitt Guy: God, no! I'd rather be killed than kill someone.
There's not much point in attempting a discussion about deterrence rates and such with folks who make their decisions on such things based solely on emotional repugnance. But if someone just viscerally dislikes the death penalty and rationalizes it by thinking it doesn't help anyway, some reconsideration is in order.

Naturally, there are those who don't think incentives matter. From later in the NYT article:
But not everyone agrees that potential murderers know enough or can think clearly enough to make rational calculations.

It doesn't surprise me to hear such thinking, because it's merely a variant of much else that comes from the left side of the political spectrum. It's no more than an extreme case of the general philosophy that people are just incapable of making decisions for themselves, which is why they need to be provided with healthcare, retirement, etc. and forced to give up their money to pay for them.

That's not to say there are not valid criticisms to be made of any study that is looking at a complex societal issue. as the article notes:
Critics say the larger factors are impossible to disentangle from whatever effects executions may have.
Well, sure. But given that several hundred years of economics says that incentives matter, the burden of proof should be on those who say they don't.

 
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Comments
"No doubt the methodology will be picked apart, because it’s an article of faith among some that the death penalty does not deter murder and other violent crime. I’ve always thought such an absolutist position was wrong on its face, because at a bare minimum an executed criminal will never kill again whereas escaped convicted murderers have been known to commit additional murders."
That analysis begins in mid-air: it does not account for the the initial murder committed in the face of the death penalty.
 
Written By: Billy Beck
URL: http://www.two—four.net/weblog.php

Given that we have jails full of rapists, burglars, and other criminals, it is obvious that NO law deters crime. Therefore we should do away with prisons entirely and use the money for education and treatment programs.

Actually, I think some are deterred and some aren’t. There are people who just don’t give a da*n, and there are others who think they can get away with murder. Others aren’t so sure, and thus refrain.

My problems with the death penalty involve the conviction of innocent people. Over the last few years it seems to me there have been a significant number of people convicted of crimes, some sentenced to death, who have been proven to be innocent. That bothers me, particularly as people are always telling me they have seen me before or that I look just like their wife’s brother’s best friend. I have even been approached by someone who would make a very credible witness who said I was a dead ringer for Nick Faldo. Eyewitness identification doesn’t seem as reliable to me as it once was.



 
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
I don’t think I understand your point, Billy. All discussion of the deterrent effect of the death penalty starts with assumption on an initial crime. The question is then "does the punishment of death for this crime deter future murders or deaths?" Certainly by definition it deters any future murders by the same person. Then the question becomes whether it deters others via incentive effects.

Are you are saying that the initial murder is prima facie evidence of the failure of deterrence of the death penalty? If so, I would just say that no one is arguing that the death penalty deters all murders and violent crimes. It only has to deter some of them to be better than alternatives.
 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
Tim, your points are very well taken. I have no problem with a very high standard of evidence for death penalty punishments. But in our transparent society, with cameras, DNA fingerprinting, etc., I do think there are cases where the guilt is so clear that concerns about conviction of the innocent are vanishly small.
 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
Tim, on the other side of your argument:

As far as we know, we have never executed an innocent man. However, there are several instances of murderers serving life sentences who have either ordered murders from behind bars or murdered other inmates. Lacking the death penalty, these murders would go without punishment, because the guilty party is already serving a life term and won’t have to answer for those crimes with his own life.

It’s a complicated issue, but Billy Hollis is right: the notion that the death penalty doesn’t deter any future murders is illogical on its face.
 
Written By: Steverino
URL: http://
It only has to deter some of them to be better than alternatives.


Better for who? If you’re just speaking for yourself, why should I or anyone care? If not, how presumptuous.


 
Written By: Richard Nikoley
URL: http://honestylog.com
I have to agree with tim’s sentiments.
What this article also fails to address, is the morality behind the state taking the lives of its citizens. Not the questions of the morality behind executing someone who is guilty of murder and the like, but the morality of giving the ultimate power of execution to an entity that is known, especially to libertarians of any stripe, to be ineffectual, incompetent, and corrupt.
Tim, your points are very well taken. I have no problem with a very high standard of evidence for death penalty punishments. But in our transparent society, with cameras, DNA fingerprinting, etc., I do think there are cases where the guilt is so clear that concerns about conviction of the innocent are vanishly small.
This is a reasonable approach, though still not enough for me. If I were convinced that excessive redundancy were required and met for each time someone was convicted in a capitol case, I might relax my position a little, but not much.

The argument that the government has a moral obligation to defend its citizens by taking the life of other, even guilty, citizens loses on the ground floor. Whatever deterrence may exist with capitol punishment does not outweigh the irreversible consequences of a conviction met wrongly through incompetence, corruption, and even malice.
(I can’t help but think of Mike Nifong right now.)

I do not have a moral problem with an individual taking the life of a criminal in self defense. In fact, if someone, or someone’s family was in immediate danger, I believe that it is the responsibility of that individual to take every means possible to prevent the danger.

I have a 12 gauge pistol grip shotgun loaded and ready by my bedside if ever the unfortunate event may occur for me to have to use it. A friend of mine suggested that I should load it with rock salt instead of buck shot so if I needed to use it, the result would (hopefully) be that the intruder is immobilized but still alive. I informed him that those odds are not good enough for me. I want to STOP an intruder, not season the intruder.

I’d put salt on gazpacho. I’d put buckshot in an intruder.

Cheers.
 
Written By: PogueMahone
URL: http://
When you [John Kerry] have done so, if you can then prove anything in the [Swift Boat Verterns] ads was materially untrue, I will gladly award $1 million. As you know, I have been a long and proud supporter of the American military and veterans’ causes. I now challenge you to make this commitment: If you cannot prove anything in the Swift Boat ads to be untrue, that you will make a $1 million gift to the charity I am choosing — the Medal of Honor Foundation.
John, if your reading this, you can start here.
 
Written By: Neo
URL: http://
Whatever the deterrent effect, the death penalty should be imposed only when the Defendant has special certified defense counsel paid for by the state, and a trial judge specially trained and experienced in capital cases.

For more than 40 years, this has been the rule under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I think it is a good one.

States could then decide for themselves whether it is worth the expense for deterrent purposes.

 
Written By: vnjagvet
URL: http://www.yargb.blogspot.com
The argument that the government has a moral obligation to defend its citizens by taking the life of other, even guilty, citizens loses on the ground fl
oor.

That’s right, because who has an obligation to whom is ambiguous, for one, and for another, it unjustifiably presumes that any given "whom" has granted moral sanction to be defended in such a manner.

While I agree that there are some instances where the granting of moral license by a victim or potential victim can be rationally and reasonably presumed granted, after-the-fact retribution is never one of those instances. If the victim is still alive, we can ask them how they’d like it handled (or just let them handle it). If not, then we can’t know, and those closest to the victim can decide for themselves what they’re willing to risk in their presumptions, weighing it against their values.

When presumably smart and upstanding people argue in favor of the enforcement, prosecutorial, and retributive "justice" system, I’m always tempted to ask them who they’d rape, rob, or kill if that pesky deterrent wasn’t standing in the way.

I’ll tell you what: if I was ever seriously inclined to off someone, I’d sure rather deal with the predictability of the bumblers who work for the state than with, say, the father, brother, or uncle of the victim. Violent crime is a product of the state, and in large measure a major aspect of its health. Law enforcement, prosecution and retribution offers far more incentive to do harm to others than deterrent. Think about it.

 
Written By: Richard Nikoley
URL: http://honestylog.com
The argument that the government has a moral obligation to defend its citizens by taking the life of other, even guilty, citizens loses on the ground floor. Whatever deterrence may exist with capitol punishment does not outweigh the irreversible consequences of a conviction met wrongly through incompetence, corruption, and even malice.
First, for argument’s sake, cite one innocent person executed wrongly.

Second, wrongful conviction with a life sentence isn’t materially better than wrongful execution. An innocent who dies in prison from natural causes is exactly the same as an innocent executed. And it’s impossible to compensate someone who’s been imprisoned wrongfully for 20 years or more: all the money in the world will not give him back those 20 years. The fact is, death row inmates receive a far higher scrutiny of their cases than those with lesser sentences.

We already have a mechanism in the judicial system to deal with people wrongfully shot and killed by law enforcement officers, and I dare say that’s far more common than people wrongfully executed. (As I mentioned before, we have yet to prove that anyone has been wrongfully executed.)

Finally, death penalty opponents must face this fact: without the death penalty, someone can murder as often as he wishes and never pay for those crimes with his own life. Murderers sentenced to life imprisonment have killed other inmates and/or ordered murders of people outside of prison. This is a fact, unlike the supposition that we might execute an innocent. Are those crimes to go unpunished? It’s not like sentencing them to life again will add anything to his punishment.
 
Written By: Steverino
URL: http://
As the saying goes, there are few repeat offenders when you execute them.
 
Written By: Scott Jacobs
URL: http://
Well Steverino, if I believed as you do – that the government doesn’t make any mistakes – then I would definitely be pro death penalty. Also, if I believed as you do – that the government doesn’t make any mistakes – then I would also believe in government run health care.

But I just don’t believe as you do – that the government doesn’t make any mistakes – so it’s also hard for me to believe that the hundreds of people exonerated through the help of the innocence project and like endeavors, are ALL of the innocent people ever convicted.
There has to be some that were missed. Like this guy.
Second, wrongful conviction with a life sentence isn’t materially better than wrongful execution.
That’s just crazy. I’m sure that there are lots of people sitting on death row that would disagree with you. Besides, one can’t come to their own defense when there dead.

Here’s a scenario for you to help you better understand life and death, Steve…

Say Tommy, a 20 year old man, was convicted for murder and sentenced to death. Twenty more years goes by while his attorneys fail every attempt to put a stop to the execution. The day finally comes and the state pumps thousands of volts through Tommy killing him. Two years later, the real killer is caught for another crime and then also confesses to the crime that Tommy was wrongfully convicted for.

Do I need to go on? Can’t you see that a life sentence is materially better than wrongful execution? I bet Tommy and his family would.

You really have that much faith in government, do you Steve?
 
Written By: PogueMahone
URL: http://
Well Steverino, if I believed as you do – that the government doesn’t make any mistakes – then I would definitely be pro death penalty.
Strawman alert...

Of course government makes mistakes. It’s made of people, and people make mistakes. But the thing that frustrates me about purist libertarian argument is that things are never that simple, no matter how much pure libertarians like to pretend they are.

If the presumption that capital punishment deters murder and violent crime is true, then innocent people are going to die if capital punishment is not in place. Period. Why are those innocent people less important than the ones that might be caught up wrongly in a system that allowed capital punishment? If we’re going to give government any role in justice whatsoever, don’t we want a system that protects innocents to the best extent we can find?

No one is arguing that with capital punishment in place that it’s impossible for innocent people to die. But, with appropriate levels of proof and evidence required, is it not possible for that number to be miniscule next to the number of people that would otherwise die if capital punishment is not in place?

No system is perfect. Ever. Pretending that pointing out the flaw that "government makes mistakes" absolves us of the responsibility of making judgements about appropriate policies in an imperfect world is a flight of fancy.
 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
"As far as we know, we have never executed an innocent man."

As far as we know. Given, as I mentioned, that there have been at least a couple of convictions overturned because of DNA or other evidence unavailable at the original trial, I would bet that there have been a few innocent men executed. Particularly since for most of our history the criminal justice system was not nearly as friendly to the accused as it is today.

"is it not possible for that number to be miniscule next to the number of people that would otherwise die if capital punishment is not in place?"

Pure speculation. It is possible, but the opposite is also possible, and given the lack of evidence either way, the argument is not particularly useful.
 
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
Well Steverino, if I believed as you do – that the government doesn’t make any mistakes – then I would definitely be pro death penalty. Also, if I believed as you do – that the government doesn’t make any mistakes – then I would also believe in government run health care.
Billy already beat me to this, but this is a strawman. Geez, Pogue, can’t you do any better?
That’s just crazy. I’m sure that there are lots of people sitting on death row that would disagree with you. Besides, one can’t come to their own defense when there dead.

Here’s a scenario for you to help you better understand life and death, Steve…
That scenario NEVER HAPPENED, Pogue. I’m talking about the real world here. Show me proof of ONE SINGLE innocent man who was executed.
Do I need to go on? Can’t you see that a life sentence is materially better than wrongful execution? I bet Tommy and his family would.
Tell me, Pogue: would this be materially different if this fictional Tommy were sentenced to life in prison and died two years before his name was cleared? If so, how?

THAT was the point I was making, and it sailed right over your pea-sized head: that an innocent man dying in prison of natural causes is not materially different from an innocent man executed.

And how do you compensate someone from whom 20 or 30 years of freedom have been stolen? There isn’t any amount of money that can unwind the clock.
You really have that much faith in government, do you Steve?
You really are a fool, Pogue. You can’t come up with one proven innocent man ever executed. You put up strawmen that completely misrepresent my position. And you failed to address my point: that murderers not sentenced to death can continue to murder without ever paying a higher penalty.

Try to argue your side honestly, because right now there is no reason to take you seriously.

 
Written By: Steverino
URL: http://
...given the lack of evidence either way, the argument is not particularly useful.
So are you not even interested in finding out? Is your opposition to the death penalty purely philosophical, or is it at least partially on utilitarian grounds?
 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
As far as we know. Given, as I mentioned, that there have been at least a couple of convictions overturned because of DNA or other evidence unavailable at the original trial, I would bet that there have been a few innocent men executed. Particularly since for most of our history the criminal justice system was not nearly as friendly to the accused as it is today.
Tim, not to pick on you, but this is utterly specious. It’s especially ironic that your next comment is:
Pure speculation. It is possible, but the opposite is also possible, and given the lack of evidence either way, the argument is not particularly useful.
You won’t accept Billy’s speculation, but you freely use your own speculation.

Look, if an innocent man actually has been executed, then show proof of it. If you can’t prove it, then your speculation isn’t any more useful than Billy’s.

 
Written By: Steverino
URL: http://
Strawman alert...
Bullsh*t.
Steverino claims that no innocent person has been executed. Therefore he believes that the government has not made a mistake. I called him on it.

No strawman.

The thing that frustrates me about neolibertarians, is that when confronted with the fact that some of their beliefs are inconsistent even with the most basic libertarian philosophy, they like to use terms like “strawman” and “BDS” in an effort to avoid their own hypocrisy.

Of course government makes mistakes. It’s made of people, and people make mistakes. But the thing that frustrates me about purist libertarian argument is that things are never that simple, no matter how much pure libertarians like to pretend they are.
No one said anything was simple.
No system is perfect. Ever. Pretending that pointing out the flaw that "government makes mistakes" absolves us of the responsibility of making judgements about appropriate policies in an imperfect world is a flight of fancy.
Again, more horsesh*t. No one is “pointing out the flaw that government makes mistakes absolves us of the responsibility of making judgments about appropriate policies in an imperfect world”.
That’s your own projection.
If the presumption that capital punishment deters murder and violent crime is true, then innocent people are going to die if capital punishment is not in place. Period.
The difference is, Billy, one is the criminal actions of an individual(s), the other is the possible execution of innocence from the state which is almost impossible to hold accountable.
This is no “flight of fancy”. This is bedrock libertarian philosophy of a small state with limited powers. Period.

No one is suggesting that because the government is imperfect, the government shouldn’t hold criminals accountable. The argument is that the death penalty is irreversible and so heinous if misused either with incompetence or malice, that giving this irreversible power in the hands of the state may not be a good idea.

I have no problem locking up criminals in solitary confinement in some remote place without the possibility of parole. The effect would be the same, but if new evidence were to come to light that may be exonerating, at least the prisoner would still be around to assist in his own defense.



 
Written By: PogueMahone
URL: http://
That scenario NEVER HAPPENED, Pogue. I’m talking about the real world here. Show me proof of ONE SINGLE innocent man who was executed.
There was the Cantu case that I linked to. And there are many, many more cases where so much circumstantial evidence and reasonable doubt would suggest that at least a few of them were really innocent.

Oh my god, Steve. You really believe the government has never made a mistake on this.
All these years, thousands of cases, the government is batting a 1000?

Really!?
Tell me, Pogue: would this be materially different if this fictional Tommy were sentenced to life in prison and died two years before his name was cleared? If so, how?
Yeah, but see, fictional Tommy didn’t die two years before.
Fictional Tommy is in perfect health.
So tell me, Steve. Does this change material difference?

THAT was the point I was making, and it sailed right over your pea-sized head:
You can’t blame me if you suck at this, Cookie. Besides, do you think your material difference matters to actual people sitting on death row?
You really are a fool, Pogue. You can’t come up with one proven innocent man ever executed.
You really are a fool, Steverino, to have so much faith in government to believe that they have never, NEVER, made a mistake on this.
 
Written By: PogueMahone
URL: http://
Actually, whether or not the death penalty has a deterrent effect is irrelevant, when considering the its morality. I can think of at least one procedure which would definitely save lives but which all of us would reject on the grounds of its obvious immorality (to wit, purposefully hastening the death of a person in a Persistent Vegetative State for the purpose of harvesting their organs to allow speeder transplants to those in need of transplants). So to say that something saves lives does not mean it is therefotr moral.

Furthermore, the question of whether the death penatly is a deterrent is secondary to another factor—the question of whether detection and enforcement operate as a deterrent. I read on another blog that New York City, Washington DC and one other major city are able to make arrests in just over 60% of homicide cases. Even if we assume that all those arrested are successfully prosecuted (and they probably are not), that means that approximately 40% of all murders in those cities result in the murderer escaping detection. So a would be murderer goes to commit his crime knowing that he has almost a 1 in 2 chance of not getting caught, much less being sent to jail, and even more, much less receiving the death penalty. I would certainly try to improve the arrest rate as the first step in deterrance. Knowing that there is a high probability of being caught will have a significant deterrent effect even if the death penalty is not involved.
 
Written By: kishnevi
URL: http://
Yeah, but see, fictional Tommy didn’t die two years before.
Fictional Tommy is in perfect health.
So tell me, Steve. Does this change material difference?
You are missing the point of my statement. I’ll use small words, maybe you’ll understand it:

Dying in prison after being wrongfully convicted is no different from being executed wrongfully. Are you so devoid of common sense that you think otherwise?

If an innocent man is executed after 20 years of appeals, and another innocent man dies in prison after 20 years, there is absolutely no difference in the wrong committed in either case. Are you going to argue otherwise?
There was the Cantu case that I linked to. And there are many, many more cases where so much circumstantial evidence and reasonable doubt would suggest that at least a few of them were really innocent.
I’m beginning to think you skipped over that whole "reading for comprehension" bit in school. The scenario I spoke of was your fictional Tommy scenario, which indeed never happened.

As far as the Cantu case, there’s a long way between that article and proof. Maybe it will be proven in the future, maybe not. Would you change your mind if it’s never proven?
Oh my god, Steve. You really believe the government has never made a mistake on this.
All these years, thousands of cases, the government is batting a 1000?
What I believe is immaterial. Do you understand this? What can be proven is the only thing that matters. I don’t know whether any innocent has been executed, what I do know is that it hasn’t been proven.
You really are a fool, Steverino, to have so much faith in government to believe that they have never, NEVER, made a mistake on this.
Once again, you beat on a strawman to misrepresent my position. I’ve never once said that I have faith in the government. (As a challenge, show me where I said this, or else shut up about the matter.) Since you can’t counter my statements with facts, and you can’t represent my position fairly, you’re pretty much conceding the battle here. But if being an idiot gives you some kind of personal gratification, by all means, continue.


 
Written By: Steverino
URL: http://
Well I’m a neolibertarian and I’m with you, Pogue. A government that can use due process to deprive a citizen of their very lives is thereby equipped to take anything they want from us at any time they want to take it. I too would prefer not to live under such a regime.

While it’s inarguable that the death penalty deters the executed, the real question is whether or not it deters more than life in prison (or if I had my way, death in prison). Ironically, we simply don’t execute enough people to deter the weakest minded amongst us whom are responsible for most of these crimes; that’s where the economic argument fails. Sure capital punishment may deter all of us gathered here at Q&O and indeed, most everybody else, but John Wayne Gacy or some sociopathic 19 year old cop killa dealing crack downtown? Not so much.

yours/
peter.
 
Written By: peter jackson
URL: www.liberalcapitalist.com
Dying in prison after being wrongfully convicted is no different from being executed wrongfully. Are you so devoid of common sense that you think otherwise?

If an innocent man is executed after 20 years of appeals, and another innocent man dies in prison after 20 years, there is absolutely no difference in the wrong committed in either case. Are you going to argue otherwise?
I never would dispute that, my scenario was to illustrate that there is a material difference. Are you too dense to understand that? I can’t tell, you never did address that. You just added your own twist to the scenario to fit your position.

You’re right, if an innocent man is executed after 20 years of appeals, and another innocent man dies in prison after 20 years, there is absolutely no difference in the wrong committed in either case.
Now, if a man is wrongfully executed just prior to there being exonerating evidence come to light, isn’t there a material difference???

What say you, Steve???

If you argue that it is a fictional scenario that has never happened and will never happen, you are basically stating that the government does not make mistakes.
Tell me Steve, how is that misrepresenting your position.

That is the position of all pro death penalty advocates. That the government does not make mistakes. Or that the government makes mistakes, and its just a price we have to pay for deterrence.
And since you say I’m misrepresenting your position, why don’t you tell me straight up –
Does the government make mistakes?
Does the state kill innocent people as the cost of perceived deterrence?

It’s not my fault your constant rattling about “never once proved the state killed the wrong man” would lead someone to believe that you have faith in the government.
As far as the Cantu case, there’s a long way between that article and proof.
Maybe. But doesn’t that provide at least reasonable doubt? Doesn’t that cause you to rethink the original conviction? Doesn’t all of the circumstantial evidence cause you to reconsider whether or not the government f*cked up on this one???
But it’s too late. The guy is dead.
And there are many cases similar to that one.


Is it that the government NEVER made a mistake on ALL of these???

Either you have to say that the government never makes mistakes, or you have to say the government kills innocent people.

Which is it, Steve?



 
Written By: PogueMahone
URL: http://
DNA evidence has exonerated a whole lot of people. If the system was infallible, then why were these people convicted in the first place? That to me is a big warning label that says handle with caution on the death penalty. I’m pretty much against it for this reason.

Though as a deterrent effect, maybe it should be more like arguing about mass vaccinations...sure some people die from measles shots, but we still encourage them.
 
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
But given that several hundred years of economics says that incentives matter...

The effectiveness of any incentive structure depends on a number of factors and not all incentive structures are successful (indeed they often fail).
 
Written By: Syloson of Samos
URL: http://ingenuus.blogspot.com/
Anyway, good article. Well worth reading.
 
Written By: Syloson of Samos
URL: http://ingenuus.blogspot.com/
A couple of points:

When the criminal justice speaks of deterrnence, there are two types. The first is specific deterrence — preventing that person himself from committing more crimes. The second is what most people think of as deterrence — causing other people to not commit crimes, which is called general deterrence. Obviously, a dead person will commit no further crimes. The question with the death penalty is whether it causes other people to change their minds and not commit crimes they would have otherwise.

I didn’t review the study itself, just the newspaper article, but from what I can see the data seems weak. The death penalty in the U.S. is simply too capriciously applied for meaningful study. Futher, I saw in the article that the crime rates in Canada — no death penalty — have moved in unison with crime rates in the U.S, even after the U.S, reinstated capital punishment. My own experience is that few murderers are deterred by anything the criminal justice systme might do to them. First off, nobody thinks he will get caught. Second, most criminals are practically defined by poor impulse control. If they responded to normal social cues, they wouldn’t be violent criminals in the first place.

That said, I wouldn’t doubt that some number of potential murderers might think twice, perhaps even alter their course of behavior, in response to the death penalty. I think it is a very small number. but still I would guess that there is some general deterrence from the death penalty.

But unless studies can plainly show that impostion of the death penalty deters more than one-to-one, then the net reslut is that the state is killing more people than it is saving. Moreover, it is not enough to merely meaasure numbers because there is a qualitative difference between state-sanctioned execution and criminal acts by individual people. The more funadamental question is whether we want the state executing people under any circumstances.
 
Written By: David Shaughnessy
URL: http://
Mike Nifong is a good name to bring up. I’d also cite the state of Illinois from a few years back where several men, on death row, had their convictions reversed thanks to the Innocence Project, so much so that the Governor was horrified enough to commute every sentence.

My confidence in the system suffered its final blow years ago while watching Ted Koppel’s show; where he was discussing a man released after serving over a decade of a life sentence. This wasn’t a man sprung on the metaphorical "Technicality" - it had been proven - confession and all - that another man had committed the murder he was jailed for. Not merely "This is the wrong guy" but a "This is the wrong guy and we know because the right guy is HERE."

The lead prosecutor on the case? He had fought against the release. Not because the guy was guilty, but because (And I quote, because it chilled me to the bone), "It was a good conviction."

Jailing a man - hell, even locking him up for a weekend for questioning - wrongly makes me uncomfortable, but at least such mistakes may be undone. If you’re going to take people’s lives for crimes, you have to be sure. Every. Time.

Not just a reasonable doubt, but beyond the shadow of a doubt.

We aren’t there on it. And when we are talking about the life of an innocent man, the best has to be the enemy of the good. Anything less qualifies as barbaric.
 
Written By: The Gonzman
URL: http://
I never would dispute that, my scenario was to illustrate that there is a material difference. Are you too dense to understand that? I can’t tell, you never did address that. You just added your own twist to the scenario to fit your position.

You’re right, if an innocent man is executed after 20 years of appeals, and another innocent man dies in prison after 20 years, there is absolutely no difference in the wrong committed in either case.
Now, if a man is wrongfully executed just prior to there being exonerating evidence come to light, isn’t there a material difference???

What say you, Steve???
I’d say it’s an outrage...and just as outrageous as if an innocent man died in prison from some other cause before exculpatory evidence came to light. I keep saying that, and you don’t seem to understand it.

You complain about making irreversible errors in executions, and I have stated that it’s just as likely to make irreversible errors with other sentences (and other crimes besides murder).

I have said many times there is no difference between an innocent man dying in prison from natural causes and one dying in prison from execution. I haven’t twisted anyone’s words in making that point, and you keep dodging it.
If you argue that it is a fictional scenario that has never happened and will never happen, you are basically stating that the government does not make mistakes.
Tell me Steve, how is that misrepresenting your position.
Oh, this is too simple: I didn’t said it will never happen, I said that your fictional scenario DIDN’T happen. You misrepresent me in this very quote. Don’t believe me? Go and find where I said it will never happen. I dare you.

It’s not my fault your constant rattling about “never once proved the state killed the wrong man” would lead someone to believe that you have faith in the government.
So, you can’t provide a quote by me about having faith in government? Time for you to shut up on the matter, because you know I never said it.

Tell me: is what I said wrong? Have we been able to prove that an innocent man has been executed? For all your bluster, you have yet to show proof that an innocent man was executed.




Okay, I’m tired of Pogue constantly misrepresenting me. Here’s my position:


1. I will admit that it under the death penalty it is possible that an innocent man could be executed. I stand by my statement that as far as we know it hasn’t happened yet. That’s not to say that it absolutely hasn’t happened, just that we haven’t been able to prove it. (I expect everyone but Pogue will understand the distinction I am making here.)

2. As Billy Hollis has pointed out, given the advances in technology for processing physical evidence, it is becoming increasingly less likely that an innocent man will be convicted (of any crime, not just murder). Further, the long period between imposition of the sentence and the prisoner actually being executed allows for exculpatory evidence to be found and processed. All this makes the possibility of executing an innocent very remote.

3. Death penalty opponents must admit that a life sentence doesn’t stop all murderers from killing again. This is a proven fact: there are several instances of murderers killing behind bars, and a recent one in California where a convicted murderer ordered hits on the witnesses in his case. Death penalty opponents must admit that absent a death penalty, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence will pay no further penalty for any additional murder he commits.

4. Life imprisonment has a deterrence factor of X. The death penalty has a deterrence factor of X + Y, where Y is orders of magnitude larger than the the possibility of executing an innocent. As the article pointed out, somewhere between 3 and 18 future deaths are prevented by each execution.

 
Written By: Steverino
URL: http://
given the advances in technology for processing physical evidence, it is becoming increasingly less likely that an innocent man will be convicted (of any crime, not just murder). Further, the long period between imposition of the sentence and the prisoner actually being executed allows for exculpatory evidence to be found and processed. All this makes the possibility of executing an innocent very remote.
Well, "remote" is of course a relative term. Technology has not and will not eliminate all doubt. Technology, no matter how good, is never perfect. And there is always the human factor. After all, the legal system is quintessentially human — from arrest to trial to post-conviction proeedings to execution. It is all driven by people and people make mistakes. It is an inescapable fact.
Death penalty opponents must admit that a life sentence doesn’t stop all murderers from killing again. This is a proven fact: there are several instances of murderers killing behind bars, and a recent one in California where a convicted murderer ordered hits on the witnesses in his case. Death penalty opponents must admit that absent a death penalty, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence will pay no further penalty for any additional murder he commits.
True enough. A dead person simply cannot commit any more crimes, while a living person can. OK. Inmates do kill other inmates, sometimes even COs. Inmates doing life can escape or, as you mentioned, conspire to commit crimes outside prison. These risks can be minimized but never eliminated entirely. It is not true, however, that an inmate serving life cannot be further punished short of the death penalty. Inmates are routinely placed in isolation for disciplinary infractions, not to mention new crimes committed while in jail.
Life imprisonment has a deterrence factor of X. The death penalty has a deterrence factor of X + Y, where Y is orders of magnitude larger than the the possibility of executing an innocent. As the article pointed out, somewhere between 3 and 18 future deaths are prevented by each execution.
Well, I agree that there is some general deterrence from criminal sanctions, and that, as penalites increase, there is an incremenatally larger deterrent effect. I assume also that the death penalty will follow this pattern and that there is an incremenatlly larger general deterrence effect from the death penalty over life imprisonment. I seriously doubt, however, that the difference is anywhere approaching "orders of magnitude." From what I can see, the claim that "between 3 and 18 future deaths are prevented by each execution" is quite a reach based on the available data, especially if one discounts specific deterrence.




 
Written By: David Shaughnessy
URL: http://
Technology has not and will not eliminate all doubt.
Never said it would or could. My first point was that it is possible that an innocent man could be executed. It’s simply that the chance of it happening is already very small, and getting smaller every day.
It is not true, however, that an inmate serving life cannot be further punished short of the death penalty. Inmates are routinely placed in isolation for disciplinary infractions, not to mention new crimes committed while in jail.
Sorry, but this just doesn’t wash. Isolation as punishment for a murderer already serving a life sentence is insignificant. However, insignificant is still greater than zero, so I’ll amend my statement to say, "a convicted murderer serving a life sentence will pay no significant penalty for any additional murder he commits." To oppose the death penalty means you have to accept that some proven murderers will not pay for their crimes.
From what I can see, the claim that "between 3 and 18 future deaths are prevented by each execution" is quite a reach based on the available data, especially if one discounts specific deterrence.
I’d say it’s not fair to discount specific deterrence, because of my point #3. But even if the study got its numbers wrong, the chance of executing an innocent remains orders of magnitude lower than the deterrence factor of the death penalty.

Let’s say that the death penalty only prevents one death (above the deterrence due to life imprisonment) for each execution. That would mean for every 100 executions, 100 innocents would not die. For deterrence factor to be one order of magnitude greater than the error rate in executions, you’d have to execute 10 innocent men out of every 100 total executions. No one is seriously positing that the error rate in executions is 10%.

Billy Hollis made the point earlier that innocents will die with or without the death penalty. And the fact is that without the death penalty, more innocents will die than with it.
 
Written By: Steverino
URL: http://
I’ve been a reader here for over a year, but this is my first time commenting. So take it easy on me, guys!

I just wanted to jump in here with a different position, as a Catholic. It’s possible to be opposed to the death penalty on moral grounds without being a complete pacifist, as Billy seems to suggest in his original post. Morally speaking, retaliatory executions and self-defense are apples and oranges. From the perspective of the social sciences, it is statistically likely that executions deter further violent crime, but those statistics do not take into account the dignity of human life and the importance of retaining the possibility of redemption. The Church teaches that "the act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not" (St. Thomas Aquinas), and if "non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person" (Catechism). Killing (by an individual or a society) is morally defensible only if it is done for the purposes of direct self-defense, is not directly intended as a result separate from the defense of innocent life, and if the original offender cannot be neutralized through more moderate means which respect the dignity of human life. Thus, as kishnevi pointed out earlier, just because it can be argued that the death penalty "saves" lives through deterrence, that is not enough incentive to get past God’s commandment not to kill.
 
Written By: becca balmes
URL: http://
...without being a complete pacifist, as Billy seems to suggest in his original post.
I didn’t intend to suggest that, though I could see how it might be read that way. My point was that some people are opposed because they find the death penalty too repugnant to accept (for a variety of reasons, mostly based around moral interpretations such as yours), and there is a subset of those who find all violence so repugnant that they would rather die than engage in it. I can’t find any common ground for debate with the second group, because I think pacifism is a completely irrational philosophy. For the larger group, I just wanted to point out that such folks need to come to terms with the idea that their moral choices are causing innocent deaths, presuming that the studies are true.

No doubt some are OK with that, as there are other issues in which a stand based on moral grounds can cause the deaths of innocents, as a previous commenter pointed out. I just want opponents of the death penalty to understand the implications of their choice on that issue. I’ve heard too much discussion in past years from those morally opposed who say "Well, it doesn’t do any good any way" as a way to support their position. If that’s not true, the discussion shifts to a ground where we may never come to agreement, because it’s about fundamental moral principles.
 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
that is not enough incentive to get past God’s commandment not to kill.
This is a common misquote. The commandment uses the Hebrew word for "murder", not "kill." In Mosaic law, there are plenty of instances where the penalty for some crime is death. Do you think God would contradict Himself by saying "don’t kill" in one place and "kill this guy" in another?
 
Written By: Steverino
URL: http://
"So are you not even interested in finding out?"

How would one do that? I am really curious about the methodology used in that study. I have no philosophical opposition to the death penalty, any objection is purely utilitarian.


*******************************
"Tim, not to pick on you, but this is utterly specious."

Specious;
"1. apparently true but actually false: appearing to be true but really false
a specious claim
2. deceptively attractive: superficially attractive but actually of no real interest or value"

I beg to differ, on both definitions.

Are you claiming that death penalty verdicts are always justified? That, unlike in other documented and proven cases, there has been no error?
 
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
2. As Billy Hollis has pointed out, given the advances in technology for processing physical evidence, it is becoming increasingly less likely that an innocent man will be convicted (of any crime, not just murder). Further, the long period between imposition of the sentence and the prisoner actually being executed allows for exculpatory evidence to be found and processed. All this makes the possibility of executing an innocent very remote.

But still a finite positive.

3. Death penalty opponents must admit that a life sentence doesn’t stop all murderers from killing again. This is a proven fact: there are several instances of murderers killing behind bars, and a recent one in California where a convicted murderer ordered hits on the witnesses in his case. Death penalty opponents must admit that absent a death penalty, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence will pay no further penalty for any additional murder he commits.

The same can also be said for a death sentence - someone already on death row has nothing to lose.

4. Life imprisonment has a deterrence factor of X. The death penalty has a deterrence factor of X + Y, where Y is orders of magnitude larger than the the possibility of executing an innocent.

And increasingly horrific means of execution would be even more of a deterrent in that case.

Just pointing out that people are in agreement on drawing a line somewhere. The argument is now WHERE to draw it. This line of reasoning goes to an uncomfortable conclusion.

As the article pointed out, somewhere between 3 and 18 future deaths are prevented by each execution.

This somehow smacks of statistical morality here.

1. I will admit that it under the death penalty it is possible that an innocent man could be executed.

And I agree. And this is why I have to stop right here.

If it were me or mine being the one wrongly executed to save "3 - 18" total strangers, I would find this too high a sacrifice.

Therefore, I cannot ask someone else to make that sacrifice.

And unless someone is willing to admit, "I would have no problem with the unjust execution of my (Wife, Husband, Daughter, Son, Mother, etc) for the greater good..." I cannot take any arguments past this seriously.

There certainly are ways that imposition of the death penalty may be toughened up to make that "zero" a reality. And if it is too "costly" to do this, then we cannot afford the Death Penalty at this time.
 
Written By: The Gonzman
URL: http://
Isolation as punishment for a murderer already serving a life sentence is insignificant.
You ever been in isolation for an extended period of time?

But the larger point is the one raised by other commenters: This is really a moral issue. Yes, it becomes more nuanced if one posits that there is a significant general deterrence effect, but there is certainly not enough evidence to warrant that conclusion. But even assuming (as lawyers and economists are wont to do) that more lives are saved by the death penalty, i.e., the number of murders prevented is larger than the number of executions, it still comes back to the moral question whether the state should be authorized to execute people. I think not. Others disagree.

 
Written By: David Shaughnessy
URL: http://
Are you claiming that death penalty verdicts are always justified? That, unlike in other documented and proven cases, there has been no error?
What I am saying is what I have said many times: we have yet to prove that an innocent man was executed. Given that, your assumption that some innocent men have been executed is pure speculation. And since you chide Billy Hollis for his speculations, yours have the same level of validity as Billy’s.
But still a finite positive.
Geez, can’t you people read? I said it was a possibility, I didn’t say it was zero.
The same can also be said for a death sentence - someone already on death row has nothing to lose.
He’s going to pay with his life. Not sure how much greater a penalty you can impose, other than to speed up the execution. But a life prisoner who gets sentenced to life again won’t have his life shortened by a single second. Tell me: how many death row inmates have killed while on death row?
And increasingly horrific means of execution would be even more of a deterrent in that case.
Strawman. No one anywhere is arguing for horrific executions. I think this is more like putting a dog to sleep.
And unless someone is willing to admit, "I would have no problem with the unjust execution of my (Wife, Husband, Daughter, Son, Mother, etc) for the greater good..." I cannot take any arguments past this seriously.
Let me turn your reasoning around: Until you are willing to admit, "I would rather my (wife, husband, daughter, son, mother, etc.) be murdered by a stranger than impose the death penalty on anyone..." then I can’t take your arguments seriously. It’s bullsh*t reasoning on both sides, and you know it.

I would rather there be no unjust executions. But given the imperfections of mankind, and given the fact that ANY sentence can lead to unjust and irreversible conditions, it is obvious that no penalty of any kind will always be imposed perfectly. However, given the tremendous scrutiny given death penalty cases and the long time for this scrutiny to occur, I am satisfied that erroneous executions are so rare as to not make a difference.
You ever been in isolation for an extended period of time?
Bullsh*t reasoning again. Compared to being isolated from society for the rest of your life, additional isolation in prison is not a significant or even a sufficient additional penalty for committing (another) murder.
 
Written By: Steverino
URL: http://
I would rather there be no unjust executions. But given the imperfections of mankind, and given the fact that ANY sentence can lead to unjust and irreversible conditions, it is obvious that no penalty of any kind will always be imposed perfectly. However, given the tremendous scrutiny given death penalty cases and the long time for this scrutiny to occur, I am satisfied that erroneous executions are so rare as to not make a difference.
Finally.
Geez, Steve. It’s like pulling teeth with you.

You admit that even though wrongful executions are “so rare not to make a difference”, you admit that they do happen. (although the whole “not to make a difference” part makes my skin crawl. I’m sure they make a difference to whomever was wrongfully executed and their families. But whatever, … baby steps for you Steve.)

Your position is that, though rare, these erroneous executions are necessary for the greater good. And the poor unfortunates that are wrongfully being killed with taxpayer dollars are merely taking one for the team. Now you of course would word it differently and sugar coat it, but that IS the gist of it.

Lots of people believe the way you do. I disagree with all of them too, so don’t feel too bad.

Which brings us to this…
And unless someone is willing to admit, "I would have no problem with the unjust execution of my (Wife, Husband, Daughter, Son, Mother, etc) for the greater good..." I cannot take any arguments past this seriously.
Let me turn your reasoning around:
You see Gonzman, this is Steve’s little game. He doesn’t like your reasoning, so he cries “strawman” to refuse to address it and also turns it around to fit his own view.
That’s why it took him so long to finally admit that the government does make mistakes and that innocent people have been put to death paid for by you and me.

And your right, Gonz. That is why Steve is not alone. Most death penalty advocates don’t like to admit that in all probability, innocent people have been killed by the state, and they don’t like your questions that would naturally follow because they can’t seem to put themselves or their loved ones in the position to be wrongfully executed.

And if they aren’t willing to do that, then it is a dishonest position.



I’m perfectly willing to be honest with my opinion.
Even if it were true, and I admit that it is “possible”, that less murders are committed because of capitol punishment I would still believe that capitol punishment, state enforced capitol punishment mind you, is morally reprehensible.
Again, as I have stated before in this thread, the difference is that one is the action of individuals, and the other is state sponsored and paid for with my money.
I would rather see a criminal go free rather than pay for an innocent person to be executed.

One may disagree with that and deem it utopian, so be it. At least I’m honest with my opinion.
 
Written By: PogueMahone
URL: http://
Compared to being isolated from society for the rest of your life, additional isolation in prison is not a significant or even a sufficient additional penalty for committing (another) murder.
Well, now you’re talking about the retribution aspect of the criminal sanction, not deterrence. Retribution is traditionally the primary justification for the death penalty: He’s getting what he deserves. It is fair enough to say that prolonged isolation is not "a sufficient additional penalty for committing (another) murder." It is, however, some additional punishment. And I suppose there could be other conditions imposed that make incarceration even more onerous than it is per se.

But none of that changes the basic question, which is a moral one: Should the state have the right to execute people?
 
Written By: David Shaughnessy
URL: http://
Why are those innocent people less important than the ones that might be caught up wrongly in a system that allowed capital punishment?

Because one group is being killed by my government, and they other group is being killed by random jerks whom I have no affiliation with.

This is a straightforward "ends justify the means" argument. As with all such arguments, it’s flawed, because it doesn’t discuss the long-term impacts of those ends. In this case, the capital punishment ’detterent’ declines as people who really need to kill someone prepare themselves to die for it.

Violent crimes already run a very large risk of being shot by cops. They nevertheless continue to occur. Greater use of the death penalty, even if it deters some people, will prompt a greater interest in martyrdom among others, and actually increase the violence of their criminal acts.
 
Written By: glasnost
URL: http://
The commandment uses the Hebrew word for "murder", not "kill." In Mosaic law, there are plenty of instances where the penalty for some crime is death. Do you think God would contradict Himself by saying "don’t kill" in one place and "kill this guy" in another?
Jesus turned the other cheek to his aggressors and made it pretty clear that God intends us not to intentionally kill each other. As a Christian, I believe that the second covenant is a higher authority than Mosaic law. As a Catholic, I believe that the Church has the authoritative say on the interpretation of matters of the faith, and the Church is pretty clear on the issue of the immorality of executions. The commandment may use the Hebrew word for "murder", but I believe (and the Church believes) that the death penalty is very rarely necessary for the prevention of crime and thus that most killing of prisoners on the orders of the state are, in fact, murder. If a prisoner is not posing a significant threat to any other persons and could be neutralized in some fashion other than death, then an execution is morally inexcusable.
I’ve heard too much discussion in past years from those morally opposed who say "Well, it doesn’t do any good any way" as a way to support their position. If that’s not true, the discussion shifts to a ground where we may never come to agreement, because it’s about fundamental moral principles.
I agree to disagree, then. I don’t think the death penalty is entirely without social merit if the question of the sanctity of human life is taken out of the equation, but I also don’t believe that morality should ever be excised from public policy. Thus it’s a purely academic question, for me, whether the death penalty could potentially deter any amount of violent crime, since I don’t believe that two wrongs make a right.
 
Written By: becca balmes
URL: http://
But still a finite positive.
Geez, can’t you people read? I said it was a possibility, I didn’t say it was zero.
Which is my point. You’re okay with executing innocent people, right? Because this is a reasonable and real possible consequence of your position once you wipe the lipstick off that pig.
He’s going to pay with his life. Not sure how much greater a penalty you can impose, other than to speed up the execution. But a life prisoner who gets sentenced to life again won’t have his life shortened by a single second.
No - not too many ways to do it at all, are there? Which is exactly the point. Life is already short, brutal and nasty on death row, and you can’t make it much worse, at least and remain within the constitution. Someone doing life, in a non-supermax? Oh yeah. Lotta ways.

Tell me: how many death row inmates have killed while on death row?
I did a casual Google and found one on the first page. Seems like it does indeed happen.

And increasingly horrific means of execution would be even more of a deterrent in that case.
Strawman. No one anywhere is arguing for horrific executions. I think this is more like putting a dog to sleep.
Strawman yourself. You’re utilizing a utilitarian argument that the deterrent value justifies it. So at what point do you draw that line? Let’s go ahead an use the rest of my quote, to wit: "Just pointing out that people are in agreement on drawing a line somewhere. The argument is now WHERE to draw it. This line of reasoning goes to an uncomfortable conclusion." Sorry if the reductio ad absurdium of your argument makes it look absurd.

Nice selective quoting of me, BTW, Mr. Mendacious.
And unless someone is willing to admit, "I would have no problem with the unjust execution of my (Wife, Husband, Daughter, Son, Mother, etc) for the greater good..." I cannot take any arguments past this seriously.
Let me turn your reasoning around: Until you are willing to admit, "I would rather my (wife, husband, daughter, son, mother, etc.) be murdered by a stranger than impose the death penalty on anyone..." then I can’t take your arguments seriously. It’s bullsh*t reasoning on both sides, and you know it.
Nossir, it most certainly is NOT. We are talking, ultimately, real, honest to God, flesh and blood people, with loved ones, and with people who love and depend on them.

It’s cheap and easy to dismiss that as Someone Else’s Problem(tm) in the abstract. Sorry if it makes you a little uncomfortable if it strikes close to home.

And whether or not we have executed innocent people, we sure as hell have convicted and sentenced innocent people to death, so that strikes more than close to someone, somewhere.

But, hey. Screw ’em. Ain’t you, so no big deal, right?
I would rather there be no unjust executions. But given the imperfections of mankind, and given the fact that ANY sentence can lead to unjust and irreversible conditions, it is obvious that no penalty of any kind will always be imposed perfectly.
Now you are being ridiculous. Try comparing apples to apples.
However, given the tremendous scrutiny given death penalty cases and the long time for this scrutiny to occur, I am satisfied that erroneous executions are so rare as to not make a difference.
And again, stripping the lipstick off the pig, what you are saying is that you are fine with the occasional execution of an innocent man.

Well, I’m not. And it is capital punishment fanatics like yourself which make me fall on the "anti" side; I’d be perfectly willing to have any measure of discussion with people who might be willing to reserve it for the slam dunk cases, but attitudes like yours make that impossible. It’s allways "Fer me or agin me" with your types.

In that case, mark me "agin."
 
Written By: The Gonzman
URL: http://

 
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