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Bush, Gore Both Wrong on Death Penalty Deterrence

by Paul H. Rosenberg Thursday, Oct. 19, 2000 at 5:07 PM

Bush and Gore both support for the death penalty, based on the claim it's a deterrent. But the evidence says they're wrong. We're not supposed to punish people if there's a reaonable doubt about their guilt. But what if there's much more than a reasonable doubt about the punishment?

Death Penalty Myth Of Deterrence Bush, Gore Both Wrong on Death Penalty Deterrence

In their debate yesterday, Bush and Gore both expressed support for the death penalty. When asked directly if they believed the death penalty served as a deterrent, both answered yes. Bush said, "I do, that's the only reason to be for it," and went on to specifically reject revenge as a justification for the death penalty. Gore said that it was "controversial," but that he believed it.

Nader, who was excluded from the debates, is opposed to the death penalty, and the facts are opposed to Bush & Gore. The thirteen states without the death penalty had an average murder rate of 3.7 per 100,000 in 1997, the thirteen states with the most executions from 1977 to 1998 (384 in all) had an average murder rate of 8.2 per 100,000--more than twice as high as the murder rate in non-death penalty states. In 1998 only one state without the death penalty had a murder rate higher than Texas, which leads the nation in executions by an enormous margin. North Dakota, without the death penalty, had a murder rate less than 1/6th of that in Texas--much like Western Europe.

Of course correlation doesn't prove causation and other factors need to be considered as well. But a difference this striking in the opposite direction is clearly incompatible with the claim of deterrence, and strongly suggests the opposite of a deterrence effect: a cycle-of-violence effect. This consists of (1) an existing culture with high levels of violence, that actively sanctions some forms of violence (duels & other forms fighting to 'defend one's honor,' tolerance of bullying, glorification of sports involving physical agression and hurting the opponent, etc.) (2) an actual motive of seeking revenge, consistent with the active sanctioning of violence, rationalized in terms of deterrence, (3) a brutalization effect, which results in increased murder rates as a result of executions.

Over the years there's been substantial evidence that a deterrence effect does not exist, while a cycle-of-violence effect does. Death Penalty Focus cites the Thorsten Sellin studies of the U.S. in 1962, 1967and 1980 which concluded that the death penalty is not a deterrent. The Death Penalty Information Center cites "Four new studies on deterrence [that] throw further doubt that there is any deterrent effect from sentencing people to death or executing people for homicide. The studies did find support for a brutalization effect."

  • "Capital Punishment and Deterrence: Examining the Effect of Executions on Murder in Texas," (45 Crime and Delinquency 481-93 (1999)) vy John Sorenson, Robert Wrinkle, Victoria Brewer, and James Marquart examined Texas executions from 1984 to 1997. Because of Texas's high rate of executions it provided a strongest test for the deterrent claim. However, comparing patterns in executions across the study period against the relatively steady rate of murders in Texas, the authors found no evidence of a deterrent effect. The number of executions was unrelated to murder rates or to felony rates.

  • "Deterrence, Brutalization, and the Death Penalty: Another Examination of Oklahoma Return to Capital Punishment" (36 Criminology 711-33 (1998)) by William Bailey looked for a deterrent effect in murder rates and sub-type murder rates (felony-murder, argument-related killings, stranger non-felony murder, stranger robbery-related killings) in Oklahoma before and after the state resumed executions following a 25-year moratorium. Studying the period between 1989 and 1991, Bailey found no evidence for a deterrent effect, but did find a significant increase in stranger killings and non-felony stranger killings--evidence supporting a brutalization effect.

  • "Effects of an Execution on Homicides in California" (3 Homicide Studies 129-150 (1999)) by Ernie Thompson examined criminal homicides in L.A. before and after California's execution of Robert Alton Harris in 1992, California's first execution after a 25-year moratorium. Thompson found slight increases in homicides during the eight months after the execution--evidence supporting a brutalization effect.

  • "The Geography of Execution: The Capital Punishment Quagmire in America" (Rowman and Littlefiled Publishers, Lanham, MD (1997)) by Keith Harries and Derral Cheatwood provided an extensive controlled test of the deterrrence hypothesis. The authors studied differences in homicides and violent crime in 293 pairs of countiesmatched on the basis of geographic location, regional context, historical development, demographic and economic variables. This virtually eliminated any pre-existing cultural differences which might prime higher rates of violence. Paired counties shared a contiguous border, but differed on use of capital punishment. There was no evidence for a deterrent effect of capital punishment at the county level comparing matched counties inside and outside states with capital punishment, with and without a death row population, and with and without executions. There was evidence for a brutalization effect, however: higher violent crime rates in death penalty counties.
The bruatlization effect of executions is just one facet of the more general significance of brutalization in generating homicides. In his book, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, Richard Rhodes reports on the work of criminologist Lonnie Athens who describes a 4-stage process of violentization which is consistent with the historical brutality of pre-modern Europe and it's extremely high murder rates. Since then, a centuries-long civilizing process has reduced murder rates there by 95%, while drastically reducing childhood brutalization.

The use of corporal punishment on children--by parents as well as teachers--is gradually being outlawed in Europe, which continues to have much lower rates of murder and violent crime than the U.S. "In 1990," Rhodes writes, "when the U.S. [homicide] rate was 9.4, the British rate was only 1.5, the Netherlands 0.9, Sweden 1.5, France 1.1, Gernmany 1. (To anticipate one comment: The U.S. rate would have bern high--4.8--even if African American offenders were excluded.)"

Rhodes also touches on the Southern culture of violence. Despite the fact that black migration to inner cities in the North and West has diffused higher murder rates throughout the country, the Death Penalty Information Center still notes "The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the South repeatedly has the highest murder rate. In 1997, it was the only region with a murder rate above the national rate. The South accounts for 80% of executions. The Northeast, which has less than 1% of all executions in the U.S., has the lowest murder rate."

Naturally, Southern execution patterns reflect a powerful racial bias that dominates U.S. statistics. The Death Penalty Information Center reports 158 black defendents executed for killing a white victim since 1976, compared to 11 white defendents executed for killing a black victim. (Figures updated October 10, 2000.)

All this suggests that a moderator concerned with substance could have asked some very illuminating questions of the candidates. Here are just a few examples:

    Q: "The vast majority of countries in Western Europe, North America and South America — more than 95 nations worldwide — have abandoned capital punishment. The U.S. remains in the company of countries like Iraq, Iran and China as one of the major advocates and users of capital punishment. Is this the kind of company we should keep?"

    Q: "You say you support the death penalty because it acts as a deterent. Can you give us one scintilla of evidence to support this claim?"

    Q. "Western Europe has abandoned capital punishment, but has much lower murder rates than we do. Doesn't this make your deterrence argument look silly, at best?"

    Q: "There are 22,000 homicides committed every year, while only 300 people are sentenced to death. How can this possibly be anything but arbitrary and capricious?"

    Q: "How many millionaires have been executed in America the past 25 years? How many people who couldn't afford their own lawyer? Is it murder we're punishing with the death penalty, or poverty? Or race?"

    Q: "How many millionaires on trial for murder have had their lawyers fall asleep during trial?"

    Q: "It costs more to execute a person than to keep them in prison for life. A 1993 California study put the excess cost at .25 million. By themselves, executions don't do anything to heal the pain of the families of murder victims. Wouldn't that money be much better spent providing counseling and other immediate assistance to victim's families undergoing severe trauma and loss?"

    Q: "Since 1976, 158 black defendents have been executed for killing a white victim , but only 11 white defendents have been executed for killing a black victim. The Constitution originally counted blacks as 3/5ths of white person. These figures say a black is barely more than 1/15th of a white person. How can you possibly pretend this isn't racist? Or is the death penalty supposed to deter people from being black?"

    Q: "Corporate crime kills far more people every year than street crime. Do you favor the death penalty for corporate officers of companies whose products, byproducts and work practices kill people? Do you favor the death penalty for corporations whose products, byproducts and work practices kill people? If not, can you explain to the American people why you're so soft on crime?

    Q: "If cocaine cartels contribted 0 million to your campaigjn, would you repeal the death penalty for drug kingpins?"

Death Penalty Focus: Homepage | Page referenced in article

Death Penalty Information Project: Homepage | Page referenced in article

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