The Death Penalty and Deterrence

AP has a story out which will probably create a lot of discussion. They state that a series of academic studies over the past six years show that the death penalty does act as a deterrent to other crimes. They argue that between three and eighteen lives would be saved with the execution of each convicted killer. These results could force opponents of the death penalty to reassess their views:

The studies’ conclusions drew a philosophical response from a well-known liberal law professor, University of Chicago’s Cass Sunstein. A critic of the death penalty, in 2005 he co-authored a paper titled “Is capital punishment morally required?”

“If it’s the case that executing murderers prevents the execution of innocents by murderers, then the moral evaluation is not simple,” he told The Associated Press. “Abolitionists or others, like me, who are skeptical about the death penalty haven’t given adequate consideration to the possibility that innocent life is saved by the death penalty.”

Sunstein said that moral questions aside, the data needs more study.

Others question the validity of the data:

Some claim that the pro-deterrent studies made profound mistakes in their methodology, so their results are untrustworthy. Another critic argues that the studies wrongly count all homicides, rather than just those homicides where a conviction could bring the death penalty. And several argue that there are simply too few executions each year in the United States to make a judgment.

“We just don’t have enough data to say anything,” said Justin Wolfers, an economist at the Wharton School of Business who last year co-authored a sweeping critique of several studies, and said they were “flimsy” and appeared in “second-tier journals.”

The authors of the study argue that critics of their work are more concerned with defending their position than seeking the truth.

Several authors of the pro-deterrent reports said they welcome criticism in the interests of science, but said their work is being attacked by opponents of capital punishment for their findings, not their flaws.

“Instead of people sitting down and saying ‘let’s see what the data shows,’ it’s people sitting down and saying ‘let’s show this is wrong,'” said Paul Rubin, an economist and co-author of an Emory University study. “Some scientists are out seeking the truth, and some of them have a position they would like to defend.”

It is certainly possible that some opponents of the death penalty might allow their opinions to blind them to contrary evidence. There is another group which is also showing a propensity for defending their position rather than seeking truth–the conservative bloggers who are already citing this as proof of their beliefs.

As someone who is accustomed to reading studies in academic journals as well as seeing their coverage in the mainstream media, one lesson is clear. Journalists do a terrible job of evaluating academic literature and their reporting is frequently inaccurate. A newspaper article which focuses on one study can be particularly misleading as conflicting results can often be found in research studies. It takes closer evaluation of each study’s methods, and often larger studies, to determine the truth.

This article is of interest as it does present a reason for the reality based community to question one of its beliefs, but it does not represent a final answer on the subject. In the spirit of tonight’s major event, even if it proves nothing, I should also note that the death penalty sure never deterred Tony Soprano!

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