The choice of measures that are supposed to deter crime is related to a wide range of issues at the confluence of ethics and other problems in criminal justice. Capital punishment and its effectiveness in deterring crime belong to the most discussed topics in the field. Despite some researchers’ attempts to prove the key role of legal executions in crime prevention, the opinions on their low effectiveness still prevail.
The decision to focus on deterrence rather than on the rehabilitation of criminals is informed by popular theories in the field. According to the choice theory, people’s readiness to commit illegal acts is always “the product of careful thought and planning,” which involves analyzing the consequences of a crime (Brown, Hoffman, & Siegel, 2012, p. 78). Those defending the theory of rational choice emphasize the role of a person’s own decisions, whereas their opponents blame specific circumstances and prioritize rehabilitation over the threat of punishment (Brown et al., 2012). From the perspective of the former, the severity of punishment is also among the key tools of deterrence, and this is why capital punishment is hypothesized to have positive effects on crime rates.
In theory, the threat of capital punishment should deter people from committing serious crimes, but researchers’ practical findings on the topic greatly vary. In 1975, Ehrlich studied the relationship between legal executions and murder rates using the statistics for the period from 1933 to 1970 (Bisht, Patil, & Labani, 2015, p. 275). According to his findings, capital punishment was strictly interconnected with a decrease in murder rates; he also concluded that one execution could prevent up to eight homicides (Bisht et al., 2015).
Despite the seemingly positive effect of capital punishment, Ehrlich’s results were criticized due to some methodological flaws, and mixed results were produced in further experimental studies (Bisht et al., 2015). The situation with scientific evidence is not extremely different when it comes to more recent studies in the field since the unique role of severe punishments in deterrence is not supported (Bisht et al., 2015; Brown et al., 2012). Thus, many researchers still believe that the ideas of the deterrence effects of capital punishment appear due to the interference of confirmation or interpretive bias.
Although the effectiveness of capital punishment still presents an open question, there are some arguments commonly used to defend or oppose its use. The first key idea that is mentioned by the supporters of death penalties refers to the economic effects of legal executions compared to those of whole life tariffs for people committing serious crimes (Bisht et al., 2015). According to it, legal executions are less costly than life imprisonment and, therefore, allow avoiding unnecessary financial losses.
Another argument that is often used to defend capital punishment is self-evident. The supporters of this type of punishment often emphasize that legal executions deprive serious offenders of any opportunity to repeat such actions and, therefore, impact recidivism rates (Rade, Holland, Gregory, & Desmarais, 2017). Among the arguments against it, there are religious beliefs (the need to “forgive” murderers) and the measure’s insignificant deterrence effects (Rade et al., 2017; Bisht et al., 2015).
In the end, the use of capital punishment as a measure for the prevention of crime is not widely supported. In spite of the lack of solid evidence proving its effectiveness, it is accepted that it can reduce prison costs and prevent many cases of criminal recidivism. However, people who are against death penalties refer to religious values and the absence of quantifiable and reliable results proving the effectiveness of this type of punishment.
Bisht, S., Patil, R. S., & Labani, S. (2015). Death penalty and crime deterrence – A review of quantitative evidences. Sciences, 6(4), 274-276.
Brown, G. P., Hoffman, R., & Siegel, L. J. (2012). Crim (2nd ed.). Toronto, Ontario: Nelson Education.
Rade, C. B., Holland, A. M., Gregory, J. B., & Desmarais, S. L. (2017). Systematic review of religious affiliations and beliefs as correlates of public attitudes toward capital punishment. Criminal Justice Studies, 30(1), 63-85.