Monday, June 30, 2008

Does the death penalty deter murder? How about gun control?

Two researchers whose work on death penalty deterrence was misapplied by opposing US Supreme Court Justices in a recent death penalty ruling teamed up today for a Washington Post editorial to clear up the confusion ("A death penalty puzzle," June 30).

The whole thing is well worth the read, but here's the money quote: "the best reading of the accumulated data is that they do not establish a deterrent effect of the death penalty."

RELATED (somewhat): The New York Times yesterday reacted to the Supreme Court's Heller ruling by interrogating evidence that gun control reduces crime. Similarly to the case for death penalty deterrence, the Times reports that "Many criminologists say cultural, economic and demographic factors play a big role in murder rates, and some say the number of guns and the number of murders may well be uncorrelated."

So there's no hard evidence killing people who kill reduces murder, and scant reason to think reducing gun availability does so. These results make you wonder exactly what if any public policies do evidence murder rate reductions?


Anonymous said...

There is no better specific deterrent than the death penalty; however, there is very little or no general deterrence.

Aside from the fact that innocent people may be killed, we should be concerned when the politicos talk about the death penalty's deterrence without being specific of the type deterrence.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"No better specific deterrent"? What does that mean?

Not being a wise-ass, I just don't understand you: Describe for me please an instance when the death penalty is a "specific deterrent" but not a "general" one.

Anonymous said...

It sure would have dtered Kenneth wouldnt it?

"McDuff was first convicted for raping and murdering three teenagers on August 6, 1966 — Robert Brand, Mark Dunman, and Edna Louis Sullivan — a crime that became popularly known as the Broomstick Murders. His partner, 17-year-old Roy Dale Green, was sentenced to four months house arrest and five years probation. Although McDuff was sentenced to death, the sentence was overturned when the U.S. Supreme Court abolished capital punishment in 1972. He served life with the possibility of parole.

Due to extremely crowded Texas prisons,[1] McDuff was paroled in 1989. Upon release McDuff was arrested on a series of parole violations, but he was never locked up for any substantial length of time until he was arrested for the murder of a 22-year-old Texan woman, Melissa Ann Northrup, in 1992. He was implicated in at least three other murders. After being released, he got a job at a gas station making $4 an hour and took a class, at Texas State Technical College in Waco.[2] One year after he left his job at a gas station and dropped out of TSTC, he began killing again.

As a wanted fugitive, he fled to Kansas City, but was eventually captured due to a tip from a profile on the television show America's Most Wanted. McDuff was eventually sent to death row and executed on November 17, 1998 at Huntsville Unit. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice death row section McDuff's final words were: "I’m ready to be released. Release me".[3] McDuff's body was never claimed by his family. He is buried in the cemetery of the prison where he was executed. His grave marker is adorned only with his death row number: X999055."

I bet the families of the last 3 or 4 muredered young ladies are thankful for libs that are against building more prisons and putting murderers out of the picture. The jury called for the death penalty but some judges thought they knew it all.

Anonymous said...

Specific versus general deterrence:

I am convicted of capital murder and executed. Therefore, I am specifically deterred from killing again. You, however, are not generally deterred by the fact that the state has killed me.

Reasons include:

(1) you thinking you'll never get caught.
(2) you being strung out and not thinking.

Maybe not the best example but an example nonetheless.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Gotcha, and clearly the screed about Kenneth McDuff similarly relates to "specific deterrence." But to use that example, why wouldn't a sentence of "life without parole" (LWOP) have been just as great a "specific deterrent" for McDuff?

LWOP's a lot less expensive than the death penalty because incarceration is cheaper than habeas appeals. Also, LWOP is less likely to be overturned in our lifetimes by SCOTUS, which is what happened with McDuff's original death sentence. LWOP is also better for victim families, providing more certainty and avoiding a decade or more of emotionally wrought appeals and setting execution dates over and over.

The bit about the overcrowded prisons and McDuff's release is a bit of a red herring. The reason prisons were (and are) overcrowded is the growth in incarceration for nonviolent offenders. McDuff was released to make room for some dope fiend, bottom line, who would have been better served with stronger probation in a a drug court in the first place.

We need prisons for dangerous people like McDuff. That's why we shouldn't fill them up with more petty offenders.

Anonymous said...

A jury can give a convict "LWOP" only to have judges change the laws later. "LWOP" isnt nearly as final as the death penalty. If the death penalty had been carried out, Sarafina Parker, Brenda Thompson, Gina Moore, Colleen Reed, Melissa Northrup and Valencia Joshua would be alive. I wonder if their families wish the SC would have let Texas execute McDuff when it should have?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Whatever the families' opinion, the fact remains the Supreme Court DID overturn McDuff's death sentence and in the future they're much more likely to do so again than they are to mess with LWOP.

Also, you're confused about whether LWOP might be overturned later. Offenders are sentenced under the laws at the time of their conviction. Future Legislatures can't and don't go back to change sentences. That can only be done through parole, which by definition cannot happen with LWOP. Sorry, but that's just a false argument, at least under TX law.

Anonymous said...

pnukploGrits: McDuff was the poster child for the death penalty. If anyone ever needed killin', it was him. Good riddance.


Russ said...

The death penalty never has been nor ever will be a deterrent. The argument over whether it is a deterrent is only raised by those who want to abolish it.

The death penalty is a sentence that provides society with a satisfaction that justice was done.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Agreed, Plato, but so what?

McDuff was a once in a generation serial killer. Very few lessons from his case apply to every other murderer or even death row resident, many of whom have no priors.

McDuff was given his first death sentence in the '70s, so you tell me which would have been better: If he'd gotten two death sentences or LWOP once? LWOP is more certain for victims and offenders; death row appeals take forever and the outcome is a crapshoot.

Don't think the same thing can happen again? SCOTUS is slowly abolishing the death penalty for various classes of offenders - juveniles, the mentally ill, mentally retarded, etc. In each of those instances the death penalty turned out to be not very certain or final at all.

We can all agree McDuff deserved to die, but perhaps we can also agree that if his initial sentence had been LWOP instead of the more uncertain death sentence, he'd never have been freed to commit more crimes.

Anonymous said...

Revenge is a fine justification for the death penalty.

There are other justifications, but revenge is sufficient.

W. W Woodward said...

The death sentence deters only the person put to death. It’s pretty well agreed that he will never kill again.

The penalty for murder however never concerns the person who kills in a drunken, revengeful, panicked, rage and the person who premeditates his homicide believes that law enforcement will never connect him to his crime. And, then you have the people who just don’t care.

If we could always be 100% sure - That the convicted person is the person who did the deed. That the person killed didn’t need killing.

I agree with the idea of life without parole unless the convict kills while incarcerated. If that happens, shoot him, throw dirt on his worthless body, and walk away.

Anonymous said...

"McDuff was a once in a generation serial killer." Really Scott? I think you have made a statement that is contradicted by facts.

There is one fact that death penalty opponents cannot dispute; the offenders who complete their sentence NEVER kill again.

BTW Scott, I was involved in over 30 executions with the State of Texas and not one of those executed denied their guilt. Some even admitted to other crimes they were not arrested, suspected or convicted of ("No priors", as you stated).

LWOP does not work except as a pure punishment. An 18 year old (or 21 for those of you who believe 18 year olds are still kids), has absolutely no goals. He will also not be bothered by killing again,staff or inmate. Just one man's opinion.

Retired 2004

diogenes said...

Whenever the deterrent effect of a law is discussed, we must remember to consider not just those for whom the deterrent did not work, but those for whom it did work. I would dare say that our laws (death penalty or otherwise) have a strong deterrent effect for the vast majority of our population.

Not everyone has the same level of moral development (such as described by Kohlberg, and therefore respond differently to laws and comply/fail to comply based on their level of moral development. Our objective in writing laws is to gain compliance from as many people as possible (general deterrence) and apply sanctions against the transgressors in an effort to apply specific deterrence.

I think we're missing out on a huge portion of the debate by only focussing on the people who were not deterred by the laws (and the applications thereof). If the laws work in the vast majority of cases, we should leave well enough alone. Granted, it is hard to obtain statistics on how many people would have committed a certain crime but were deterred by the law, but we shouldn't ignore that factor just beacuse it is difficult to quantify.

Personally, I don't trust LWOP to remain such. The only reason why it is cheaper than the death penalty is because death penalty abolitionists keep pushing the endless series of appeals cases to keep driving the costs up. They then turn around and point to the costs of death penalty cases as yet another reason to remove the death penalty. Their campaign to destroy the certainty and celerity of the laws and court process is a major factor in the erosion of the general deterrent effect of the death penalty laws.

Granted, the safeguards in the process could be better, but I don't see a problem with the concept of the death penalty itself.

dudleysharp said...

There are some problems with:

A Death Penalty Puzzle: The Murky Evidence for and Against Deterrence (Washington Post, By Cass R. Sunstein and Justin Wolfers, June 30, 2008; Page A11)

The article states: "But that suggestion (of the many recent studies finding for deterrence) actually catalyzed Donohue and Wolfers's study of available empirical evidence. Existing studies contain significant statistical errors, and slightly different approaches yield widely varying findings, a problem exacerbated by researchers' tendency to report only those results supporting their conclusions."

REPLY: ". . . researchers' tendency to report only those results supporting their conclusions."! My goodness, this seems much like the pot calling the kettle black. Please see the four replies to Donahue and Wolfers, at bottom - replies which, collectively, appear to lay waste to Donahue and Wolfers criticism. It should also be pointed out that Donahue and Wolfers chose not to publish their criticism in a peer reviewed publication.

The article continues: "In short, the best reading of the accumulated data is that they do not establish a deterrent effect of the death penalty."

REPLY: I think it is arguable that is an unfair reading of the data.

My take is that it would be more accurate to state that the social science of determining the measurable effect of general deterrence is challenging, at best. The strength of the recent econometric studies is suggestive of a deterrent effect of the death penalty and the criticism of those studies seems much less robust than the studies, themselves.

In general terms, the weight of the evidence is that all prospects for a negative outcome deter some. There appears to be few, if any, exceptions to that rule.

The article continues: "But as executions resume, the debates over the death penalty should not be distorted by a misunderstanding of what the evidence actually shows."

REPLY: Again, it appears that misunderstanding is, precisely, what this newest article was distributing, however unintended.

The article continues: "A prominent line of reasoning, endorsed by several justices, holds that if capital punishment fails to deter crime, it serves no useful purpose and hence is cruel and unusual, violating the Eighth Amendment." "While some favor the death penalty on retributive grounds, many others (including President Bush) argue that the only sound reason for capital punishment is to deter murder."

REPLY: The lack of balance or understanding by S&W appears quite robust. There are many well defined reasons for criminal sanction, outside of deterrence. Retribution, justice, upholding the social contract, incapacitation, among others. Obviously, capital punishment does not violate the Eight Amendment, as both the 5th and 14th Amendments assert the constitutionality of the death penalty. These are well known and important facts, not in S&W's article.

Both the current Pres. Bush and former VP Al Gore stated they support the death penalty because of deterrence. However, it is important to clarify. Does anyone believe that either Gore of Bush would support the execution of someone if it wasn't deserved? I suggest the answer is no. It's a fair question. Ask them. Then ask them, if the death penalty did not deter like men as Bib Laden or Hitler, would you still support their executions? Does anyone not know their answer? Of course not.

The article continues: "We concur with Scalia that if a strong deterrent effect could be demonstrated, a plausible argument could be made on behalf of executions. But what if the evidence is inconclusive?"

REPLY: Inconclusive? The weight of the evidence is that some are deterred by any prospect of a negative outcome. But, let's project an imaginary world where the evidence is completely neutral on the effects of negative prospects, where there is no evidence of what incentives mean to behavior.

We have two equally balanced prospects. The death penalty/executions deter and the death penalty/executions don't deter.

This prospect is neither inconclusive or equally balanced, because you have a prospect between sparing innocent life, via death penalty/execution deterrence or a prospect of death penalty/execution, with no deterrence, but enhanced incapacitation.

If deterrence is inconclusive, the prospect of saving innocent lives is not.

In addition, the deterrence calculus becomes- we execute and save additional innocent lives (via deterrence) or we execute and don't save additional innocent lives (via deterrence). The weight falls upon saving additional lives, if we have inconclusive data, because the weight is greater for saving additional innocent lives than on not saving additional innocent lives.

With this type of calculus, the only argument for not executing is if the evidence is clear that the death penalty/execution is sacrificing more innocents, via brutalization - the prospect that by executing, you are inspiring potential murderers to become real murderers. Brutalization is discounted because the evidence for deterrence is much more robust and the practical evidence that crimes will increase because of raised sanction doesn't exist.

As noted, there are a number of good reasons to argue in favor of the death penalty, other than deterrence. Even if the death penalty is a very marginal deterrent, it is still a robust argument in favor of the sanction.

Let's say that every four executions deters one potential murderer and every twenty death sentences deters one potential murderer. That would mean that around 650 innocents had been spared since 1973. Even marginal deterrence equals major benefit.

This does not take into account the two other ways that the death penalty saves additional innocent lives. Enhanced incapacitation and enhanced due process.

Sincerely, Dudley Sharp


four replies to Donahue and Wolfers

Hashem Dezhbakhsh & Paul H. Rubin
From the 'Econometrics of Capital Punishment' to the 'Capital Punishment' of Econometrics: On the Use and Abuse of Sensitivity Analysis (September 2007). Emory Law and Economics Research Paper No. 07-18,

Abstract: The academic debate over the deterrent effect of capital punishment has intensified again with a major policy outcome at stake. About two dozen empirical studies have recently emerged that explore the issue. Donohue and Wolfers (2005) claim to have examined the recent studies and shown the evidence is not robust to specification changes. We argue that the narrow scope of their study does not warrant this claim.


(2006) "This analysis shows that ((Donohue and Wolfers' "D&W's")attempts to make the deterrence effect disappear are ineffective." (p 16)
--- Existence of the death penalty, in law, has a statistically significant impact on reducing murders. (p 23)
--- Execution rates show significant impact in reducing murders. (p 13 & 23)
--- Death row commutations, and other removals, increase murders. (p13 & 23)
--- The criticism of our studies is flawed and does not effect the strength of the measured deterrent effect.
"The Impact of Incentives On Human Behavior: Can we Make It Disappear? The Case of the Death Penalty", Naci H. Mocan, R. Kaj Grittings, NBER Working Paper, 10/06, www(dot)

(2006) " . . . (Donohue and Wolfers' "D&W") criticisms of Zimmerman's analysis are misrepresentative, moot or unsupportable in terms of the analyses they perform." "It is shown that Zimmerman's published empirical results, or the conclusions drawn from them, are not in any way refuted by D&W's critique." (pg 3) "This later estimate suggests that each execution deters 14 murders on average . . .". (pg 7) "It is shown that D&W made a number of serious misinterpretations in their review of Zimmerman's study and that none of the analyses put forward by D&W (which ostensibly refute Zimmerman's original results and conclusions) hold up under scrutiny. (pg8) " . . . D&W do not even report Zimmerman's "preferred" results correctly, and then proceed by carrying on this error throughout the remainder of their critique."(pg8) "Of course, (D&W's) omission tends to create a strong impression that Zimmerman's analysis 'purports to find reliable relationships between executions and homicides', when his actual conclusions regarding the deterrent effect of capital punishment are far more agnostic." (pg10) " . . . D&W's method of interpreting their results is not consistent with that proscribed by the received econometric literature on randomized testing . . .". "As such, D&W's interpretation of their randomized test in itself does not (and cannot) reasonably lead one to conclude that Zimmerman's estimates suggesting a deterrent effect of capital punishment are spurious." (pg12) " . . . D&W do not appear to have interpreted their randomization test in any meaningful fashion." (pg14) " . . . the state clustering correction employed by D&W may not be producing statistically meaningful results." (pg16) "And while D&W once lamented that recent econometric studies purporting to demonstrate a deterrent effect of capital punishment yield 'heat rather than light', as shown herein, their criticisms of Zimmerman (2004) tend to yield 'smoke rather than fire'."(pg26)
Zimmerman, Paul R., "On the Uses and 'Abuses' of Empirical Evidence in
the Death Penalty Debate" (November 2006). ssrn(dot)com/abstract=948424


(2007) "Had (D&W's) paper been subjected to the normal blind peer review process in an authoritative economic journal it is highly unlikely that it would have survived intact , if at all. "

"(D&W's) Quibbling over numerous and sometimes meaningless statistical issues obscures the picture painted by the cumulative effect of the nearly dozen studies published since the turn of the 21st century."

"Using differing methodologies and data sets at least five groups of scholars each working independently (and often without knowledge of the others) have arrived at the same conclusion—there is significant and robust evidence that executions deter some homicides. While there may be merit in some of (D&W's) specific criticisms, none addresses the totality of the collection of studies. The probability that chance alone explains the coincidence of these virtually simultaneous conclusions is negligible."

"DW’s unsupported claim that the appropriate variable in studies of deterrence using these borrowed tools from portfolio analysis is the amount or level of homicides in the respective jurisdictions. This claim is without theoretical basis or empirical precedent. "

"With regard to DW’s specific comments on our two papers (Cloninger & Marchesini, 2001 & 2006) we find very little requiring defense. Implicit in their critique, and explicitly stated in private communications, DW were able to replicate our results based on data we furnished, at their request, as well as data they acquired independently. "

"Reflections on a Critique", Dale O Cloninger and Roberto Marchesini, forthcoming Applied Economic Letters

dudleysharp said...

"Specific deterrence" is a wrongful application for deterrence.

Deterrence means that there is a conscious or subconscious effect which prevents someone from taking some action.

With "speciifc deterrence", what anonymous is really describing is enhanced or total incapacitation, which is the complete prevention of a criminal committing any additional harm because of their execution.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"the weight of the evidence is that all prospects for a negative outcome deter some"

All punishment deters? BS! Simply saying it doesn't make it true, Dudley. The data just doesn't back you up.

Your critiques of Donohue and Wolfers don't appear to have anything to do with the article at hand. The reason the Washpost piece was important is that Donohue's and Sunstein's work were cited by opposing factions on SCOTUS, so their joint statement that both factions misrepresented their (separate) research results is important.

You don't critique Sunnstein's work, which makes your argument here baseless until you do. Even if you don't like Donohue's that's the expertise some on SCOTUS relied on for their decision. If he thinks his work was misrepresented by SCOTUS in an opinion, IMO it matters.

dudleysharp said...


Thank you for the forum and for your reply.

GFB writes: "All punishment deters? BS! Simply saying it doesn't make it true"

It is true and there is no exception. Find one and we'll talk.

GFB writes: "Your critiques of Donohue and Wolfers don't appear to have anything to do with the article at hand."

It was quite specific. I quoted the article and then responded, appropriately, and showed their obvious errors and ommissions.

I think my pointing out their obvious ommissions and hypocricy, has a tremendous effect of the weight of their article, not to mention, I pointed out that their conclusions were not, at all, necesarily, true.

How you don't see that as dealing with the specifics of their article is a bit curious.

I think they misrepresented some things. That was clear, I believe.

IMO it matters.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Easy to find an exception, Dudley. What's the marginal increased deterrence of boosting a traffic fine for speeding from $300 to $325? Zilch. After a certain point, some people still speed no matter what the fine level.

In Texas we created an extra "fee" of $1,000 per year for THREE years for DWIs - a very harsh punishment for a victimless, nonviolent offense. Has it caused numbers of DWIs to decline? No. And 70% of drivers assigned the fee can't or don't pay, resulting in a situation where today as I write this more than 10% of adult Texans have outstanding arrest warrants! So what was the deterrent benefit of the extra punishment? It exists only theoretically, but not in the world.

Bottom line: After a certain point, the marginal benefit of additional punishment declines approaching zero, and in some cases because of collateral consequences (e.g., the 10% of the public with warrants or felony level loss of rights for de minimus nonviolent offenses), the harm outweighs the good.

Back to your critique of the authors, Prof. Wolfers wasn't writing in this article - Cass Sunnstein was Donohue's one-time co-author. Do you similarly dispute his work, or is this just personal to Donohue? If you have no dispute with Sunnstein, just calling Donohue's old research into question is an invalid attack. He doesn't necessarily agree with all of Donohue's work. That's why pro-death penalty attorneys cited him in their briefs and pro-DP SCOTUS justices hung their hats on his findings.

In any event, IMO both men deserve the right to say for themselves whether opposing sides of the death penalty debate on SCOTUS used their research properly.

dudleysharp said...

You appear to have misread what I wrote.

I am not sure we disagree.

Are you saying no one is deterred by laws for speeding? I don't think you are.

You are saying that some will never be deterred, regardless of santion.

I, agree. Who doesn't?

My point was:

"all prospects for a negative outcome deter some". That is what I wrote

Deter "some".

GFB, do you have an exception?

You may disagree, but I think "some" people will be deterred from violating traffic laws, because they don't wish to be sanctioned. Not all, not most, but "some".

GFB writes: "Back to your critique of the authors, Prof. Wolfers wasn't writing in this article - Cass Sunnstein was Donohue's one-time co-author. Do you similarly dispute his work, or is this just personal to Donohue?"

How could you have missed my point?

To repeat:

The article states: "But that suggestion (of the many recent studies finding for deterrence) actually catalyzed Donohue and Wolfers's study of available empirical evidence. Existing studies contain significant statistical errors, and slightly different approaches yield widely varying findings, """"a problem exacerbated by researchers' tendency to report only those results supporting their conclusions."""""

REPLY: ". . . researchers' tendency to report only those results supporting their conclusions."! My goodness, this seems much like the pot calling the kettle black. Please see the four replies to Donahue and Wolfers, at bottom - replies which, collectively, appear to lay waste to Donahue and Wolfers criticism. It should also be pointed out that Donahue and Wolfers chose not to publish their criticism in a peer reviewed publication.

Obviously, the dispute was with both of them, because both knew of the harsh criticism of D&W. They both chose not to include that in the article. I thought that was a glaring ommission, paticularly in light of their: "Existing studies contain significant statistical errors, and slightly different approaches yield widely varying findings", """"a problem exacerbated by researchers' tendency to report only those results supporting their conclusions."""""

To be very clear, S&W were doing the exact same thing they were complaining about.

Not personal, but factual.

BTW, I sent my criticsm to Sunstein, as soon as I composed my reply - 6/30/08

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"You are saying that some will never be deterred, regardless of sanction"

That's not precisely my point. I believe all crime is deterred by some punishment, but harsher punishments don't necessarily deter more.

In my mind's eye, on a graph with Deterrence on the Y axis and harshness of penalties on the other, I think many offense demonstrate a curve that goes up, peeks, plateaus, and depending on the offense and the punishment, declines as punishments get harsher. E.g., I don't think the death penalty for child rape adds extra deterrence if the rapist is Daddy and it makes the family less likely to report. For that crime, beyond a life sentence going further on the X axis causes deterrence to decline. (Drug crimes, too, IMO are a special case.)

A final note on death penalty deterrence: Nobody in the country uses the DP more than Texas, and our murder rates are nothing to brag about. If capital punishment works, I wish we'd see more tangible crime reduction benefit.

dudleysharp said...

I thought we agreed. We do.

Texas and the nation have shown great reductions in murder, as use of executions rose.

But, it can go up and down.

Deterrence is not measured by just a look at murder rates and execution use.

For example, let's say the one of the high averages for death penalty deterrence is correct, that each execution deters 18 murders, or about 18000 innocent lives saved via deterrence, since 1973.

Looking at a blind average, that is 1.2 innocent lives saved in the largest 10 cities in 50 states ev ery year over the past 30 years. (don't qubble, just hang in there)

Whether murder rates went up or down or stayed the same in each of those jurisdicitons, those lives would still have been saved.

Please review:

dudleysharp said...

better link

dudleysharp said...

part of the link keeps dissapearing when I post it.

if it does it again, add htm at the end

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