The Death Penalty and Its Deterrents

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Death penalty is considered one of the extremely volatile issues in America. The debate on the subject has caused a lot of divisions in the America society. There are those who consider it as a justifiable mode of punishment that can deter crime whereas others consider it a form of legalized murder. The clergy have also expressed their moral concerns regarding the issue. There are various issues involved in death penalty: ethical, philosophical and religious groups have clouded the debate over capital punishment otherwise called the death penalty. However, it is only tangible evidence that can proof capital punishment as a deterrent to murder and homicide cases. This is because, deterrents has been used as a central argument in the pro and anti-death penalty debate. There has not been a unanimity concerning the debate as to whether capital punishment can deter murders as compared with long term punishment. The answer to this debate lies in pragmatic evidence and to realize this, it is imperative to compare the rates of murder and homicide in states that practice and those that do not practice capital punishment. This may take the form of control experiment. In the control experiment, lower cases of murders or homicide should be reflective of the state which implements death penalty. Another pragmatic approach is to follow murder rates in some state jurisdiction and evaluate what can happen in the case where capital penalty is abolished. It is argued that deterrent effect of death penalty should result in reduced homicide rates.

Rational Choice Model in Death Penalty

The debate on capital punishment has been characterized by differing perspectives since the days of Isaac Ehrlich in 1975. Most of the arguments are based on rational choice model which explained the existing trade off between the costs and the benefits of illegal behavior like murder. The rational choice framework was used to evaluate how individuals responded to enforcement actions. From the Ehrlich’s explanation, rational response to death penalty was considered a decline to the propensity in the decline of murder case. The circumstances surrounding capital punishment has taken into consideration marginal rates of murders with which it is associated with it. The heavy reliance on deterrence is based on the assumption that individuals who are likely to commit crimes like murder can have the audacity to take into consideration the likely punishment it will be meted upon them in case they are detected or convicted (Yorke, 2008).

There have been some proposals that capital punishment can aid in protecting the police or the prison guards. There have been some occasions which describe that capital punishment has minimum rates of homicide, it may go in the opposite direction where capital punishment can lead to increased cases of homicide. To the restoration of the death penalty by the supreme court of the United States of America in the year 1979 was prompted by the case in Gregg vs., Georgia; there had been some arguments that death penalty could save lives by helping deter or reduce cases of murders. The economic mode theory formulated by Ggary Bbecker emphasized that perception that murderous could choose between legal and illegal behavior based on the threat of execution (Fagan, 2011).

Arguments in Favor of Death Penalty as a Deterrent Measure

It has also been regarded that death penalty should act as a golden rule where an eye for an eye is meted. According to Michael Chung, while writing in an article in the Massachusetts press advocated for the death penalty as an ultimate solution to lower the death rates of murder but his argument s were contradicted by the facts that the cities of Dallas, Houston and Miami have low rates of deaths when compared with New York and Boston despite their application of the contrary. Death penalty is only one of the deterrent factors of murder cases but there are other factors that contribute to higher cases of murders like poverty and the frequent witnessing of murder cases in TV videos and movies. Death penalty is applied in the city of Texas, Florida and Louisiana, the cities are considered to be the leading in executions but still they remain the leading states in death murders when calculated per 100, 000. This is an indication that death penalty can promote murder instead of deterring. It was proved in the city of New York that execution extended the rates of murders. Some countries have witnessed reduced cases of murder after abolition of death penalty. This has been evidenced in countries like Canada. There have never been factual facts as to prove that death penalty is a deterrent for murder and murder rates do not absolutely provide evidence that death penalty is deters murder. Deterrence of death penalty can be deduced through examination of other deadly situations. Those who are in support of death penalty have some disregard for the conviction and the execution of innocent people since it may result to some cases where people will be executed for crimes that they never committed as witnessed in the execution of Willie Darden in 1988 and Roger Coleman in Florida and Virginia respectively. This was done despite the strong evidence presented in their submissions (Morrison, 1993).

The preference of death penalty as a deterrent to homicides was prompted by numerous claims that exonerations, pardons and commutations have led to spiraling cases f of murders. There have been some arguments that murders of passion can only be deterred by death penalty while acknowledging that the deterrent effects of executions can be powerful enough to reduce robberies and other violent crimes due to the fear factor. Death penalty can only be administered for the protection of the society and meting punishment to unrehabilitated offenders and if it can not achieve the above ends then there can be no need for it. Death penalty should be considered as a mode of doing justice or to deter others in order to achieve penal objectives. For these two penal objectives to justify death penalty, the opponents for death penalty must demonstrate otherwise whereas the advocates for death penalty can rest their case on the two. The arguments that capital punishment can be dysfunctional because it does not deter crimes or murder, can be strong and a persuasive one (Morrison, 1993).

Arguments against Death Penalty

Death penalty can be considered unjust because it may lead to the executions of innocent persons or because it may be used to punish the guilty poor and not the rich. The claims for death penalty should only be true if it aims at achieving justice as one of the punishments. For death penalty to be a deterrent, it should only be used to punish the guilty beyond doubt and not the innocent. Justice should be central to the arguments if death penalty is to have a deterrent to murders and other violent crimes (Den Haag, 1969).

The debate on acknowledging death penalty as a deterrent was sparked by President George Bush in the year 2000 when he argued that the fundamental reason for the support for death penalty was to save lives of other people. He further argued that if it can achieve that reason then it should be the measure. Despite the street, public and general arguments, it has not been scientifically verified or no factual evidences have been presented to substantiate it. The deterrent effect of capital punishment provides a strong ground for resisting the abolition movement. Scholars have advocated for capital punishment only for those people who are convicted for murder since it will serve to deter other murder cases (Reiman & Pojman, 1998).

The foundation of death penalty as a deterrent to murder cases was ignited in 1975 by Professor Isaac Ehrlich who analyzed the relationship between homicides and executions in the USA by using data for the period 1933 to 1869 and found out that for every one execution there were eight fewer cases of murder. This was later disputed by Peter Passel and John Taylor who argued that Ehrlich’s case was generalized since it was the period of mid 1960s, homicide cases declined in all the American states including the ones that never applied death penalty in their penal rulings and his conclusion could not be corroborated in the analysis of the relationship between execution and murder in the seven years preceding a murder. A research by Dezhbakhsh, Rubin, and Shepherd which was published in the Stanford Law review established that for every one execution there were 18 lives saved. This research did not run the regression which was claimed. It was established however that there was threat of regression leading to the opposite results where a death penalty was linked to 18 more murders (Donohue & Wolfers, 2006).

Various psychologists and criminologists who have examined this issue argue that there is no deterrent effect achieved from death penalty. The arguments on the debate are either clouded on moral principles or social welfare considerations. It has been observed that the debate on capital punishment is based on ethical and moral considerations and the reservations are based on the risk of errors which are inherent in justice legal system. The errors may be occasioned by political, cultural or even legal corruption which may be irreversible upon the application of the death penalty. The objectivity of deterrence is independent from any subjective argument in favor of the debate and it is an independent penal mode. The estimation of the magnitude of the deterrent effect of death penalty is a result of a trade off between execution of the murderer and the preservation of the live of the victims that it can help save. Death penalty demands a balance of the two positions and hence it requires an evaluation (Ehrlich, 1975).

Economic Model Application in Death Penalty

There has been the application of economic theory in the death penalty debate. This has presented both empirical evidence and analytical considerations that was lacking. It argued for the notion that offenders have the tendency to respond to incentives and particularly to punishment and law enforcement to deter the commission of particular crimes.

Van den Haag who applied utilitarian approach to the debate argued that death penalty does not deter other individual for committing crimes of murder; he also expressed that there are categories of criminals as well as exceptional circumstances that death penalty can be a possible deterrent to murder cases. Further more den Haag argued that there is no empirical and statistical evidence to justify reduced cases of homicide is as a result of death penalty. According to him, death penalty is only favored over imprisonment due to its added severity which may be a deterrent or not. Since it is necessary to spare the victims as opposed to sparing murderers, there is a burden of verifying that severity which is inherent and irrevocable. There is nothing to deterrence which lies on the opponents of death penalty (Bedau, 1970).

Death penalty pose a dilemma between saving the live of an innocent person and saving one who has committed heinous crime. The innocent are worthy of help than those who are guilty of squandering the assistance. This argument has been related to capital punishment where it is posited that some human beings are more worthy than others where as some have relinquished their right not to be killed (Lamperti, n.d.). There is a unanimity that if there is fifty percent chance of executing a murderer so as to save innocent victims then majority would be of that opinion. If there is evidence to the effect that death penalty can deter or is responsible for the deaths of innocent people then death penalty can be effective. Though the opponents argue that here is no evidence to substantiate the fact capital punishment can deter murder, they agree that the evidence may be based on commonsense experience. The abolitionists in the debate argue that though statistical and empirical evidence exist in favor of deterrent effect of capital punishment, the facts may not be decisive for a conclusive argument and long imprisonment is still an option (Reiman & Pojman, 1998).

The argument on deterrence effect of death penalty is based only on assumption without any justifiable evidence. It is only through commonsense that criminals will be deterred by the spirit of fear because human beings fear death than spending life in prison hence people will be deterred by execution than life imprisonment. Despite the fact that death penalty can be worse than life in prison it can not be definitive that it will deter criminals from committing murders (LaFollette, 2002).


The perspective that death penalty may help deter cases of murder still remains just a matter of believe and there has been no factual effect to support it. The USA for example has not had an experiment for close to half a century to verify death penalty as an enough measure to deter murder cases. This makes it difficult to arrive at strong conclusions on the debate. The facts presented in support of death penalty as a measure to deter crimes are fragile. Where as evidence indicate that death penalty may increase the rates of murder, it is still possible that it may decrease it as well. Common sense enables people to learn that criminals prefer to be out of jail and that the threat of public and social humiliation can deter people from further committing crimes and last, long sentence can as well be a deterrent to commission of crimes. There is absolutely no reason to believe that innocent lives can be saved only with death penalty as opposed to less severe penalties like life in prisons or lengthy sentences like 20 years without a parole.


Bedau, H.A. (1970). Death penalty as a deterrent: Argument and evidence. Ethics, 80(3), pp. 203-211.

Den Haag, E. (1969). On deterrence and death penalty. Journal of criminal law, criminology and police service, 90 (2), pp. 1.

Donohue, J.J & Wolfers, J. (2006). The Death Penalty: No Evidence for Deterrence. University of Pennsylvania. Web.

Ehrlich, E. (1975). The Deterrent effect of capital punishment: A Question of life and death, American Economic Review, 65 (3), pp. 397-417.

Fagan, J.A. (2011). Capital Punishment: Deterrent Effects & Capital Costs. Law School, Columbia. Web.

LaFollette, H. (2002). Ethics in practice: an anthology (2nd ed). New York, NY: Wiley-Blackwell.

Lamperti, J. (n.d). Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder? DartMouth College. Web.

Morrison, J. (1993). Death penalty an ineffective deterrent, The Tech Review, 113(53), pp. 15-20.

Pojman, P.L & Reman, H.J. (1998). The death penalty: for and against. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

Yorke, J. (2008). Against the death penalty: international initiatives and implications. New York, NY: Ashgate Publishing.

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