New Study Reveals Lack of Support for Deterrence Effect of the Death Penalty

Yesterday a new study entitled, “Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists,” was published in Northwestern University School of Law’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. The study is authored by Professor Michael Radelet, Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and Traci Lacock, an attorney and Sociology graduate student in Boulder. The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) has a copy of the study on its web site.

The study’s findings include the following:

  • Eighty-eight percent of the country’s top criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide
  • Eighty-seven percent of the expert criminologists believe that abolition of the death penalty would not have any significant effect on murder rates.
  • Seventy-five percent of the respondents agree that “debates about the death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime problems.”

The study surveyed the most pre-eminent criminologists in the country, including: Fellows in the American Society of Criminology; winners of the American Society of Criminology’s prestigious Southerland Award; and recent presidents of the American Society of Criminology. The American Society of Criminology is the top professional organization of criminologists in the world. Respondents were not asked for their personal opinion about the wisdom of the death penalty, but instead, were asked to answer the questions only on the basis of their understandings of the empirical research.

The study concluded: “Our survey indicates that the vast majority of the world’s top criminologists believe that the empirical research has revealed the deterrence hypothesis for a myth … The consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment.”

The murder rates across the nation provide further evidence that the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime. The South carries out 80% of the executions in this country while continuing to have the highest murder rate of the nation’s four regions. The Northeast, which has only had 4 executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty, has the lowest murder rate.

What we do know is that states continue to spend millions of dollars that they don’t have to maintain death penalty systems which do not deter crime instead of spending those dollars on efforts that actually can prevent violence–such as mental health care, drug treatment, education, and resources for law enforcement. Rather than pouring our money down the black hole of the death penalty, let’s get proactive about how we address the root causes of violent crime and actually prevent some of these horrible tragedies from happening at all. One way or the other, we, as a society, must be willing to spend the resources to provide hope and opportunity for those who often have neither. We can either provide those resources when they can still make a difference or after a horrible crime has been committed and it is too late.

The evidence is in. The choice is ours.

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