Monday, November 09, 2009

Death penalty deterrent evanescent, symbolic

A couple of readers asked my opinion of a column over the weekend in the Houston Chronicle by Rick Casey ("A murder mystery by the numbers," Nov. 7) analyzing estimates of the death penalty's deterrence value. Here's the bottom line regarding the results of the latest, greatest academic study of Texas-specific data:

They found that many earlier studies had vastly overestimated the effect, but the number of murders did go down in the short-term aftermath of executions.

Based on two different statistical models, they found the effect in the months after each execution to be a reduction of between 0.5 to 2.5 homicides.

That may not sound like much, but as the authors note, “even the estimated .5 deterrent per execution yields an estimated reduction in the expected numbers of monthly homicides of 5 to 10 during the subsequent 12 months, which is substantial.”

I'm sure this isn't the last word on the issue. That's no mystery. Here's the mystery:

This study and previous ones show no correlation between the amount of publicity executions receive and their deterrent effect.

“We have no theory on that,” Teske said on Friday. After a few more questions, he said, “I hear your frustration. If I wasn't working with one of the top guys in the nation, my confidence would be shaken.”

One other mystery: The study shows, as other studies have, more impact on the kinds of murders that don't qualify for the death penalty than on those that do.

So to recap, the study purports to find a deterrent effect in the immediate aftermath, even if no one knows about the execution, and it mostly "deters" people from other kinds of murders.

In my experience, the death penalty's deterrent effect is a lot like the existence of God - you believe in it if you need to believe in it, but it cannot be proven or disproven by available data in a way that will satisfy the culture warriors on either side.

Let's face it: If the death penalty seriously deterred, then Texas as the nation's execution leader would surely see the greatest reduction in murder rates nationally. But our murder rates, though declining, remain above the national average (in line with other southern states), so clearly other factors are more determinative.

In general, people believe harsh penalties deter misbehavior more than they do. (As Mark Kleiman's new book points out, certainty and immediacy of punishment are much more important.) After the Texas Legislature made stealing even the smallest amount of scrap metal a felony, total thefts skyrocketed thanks to the rising cost of copper. The resulting impact on crime from increased penalties is at best (to use a word I learned from Justice Alito this week) evanescent.

It doesn't really matter if the death penalty deters or not because its greatest importance is as a symbol, pro and con. Neither side will budge an inch no matter what this or that new study might find, and the broader public seems profoundly unmoved, as well - at least until the day an individual voter must enter a jury box and decide an individual case.

The Gallup poll question generally cited to show public support for capital punishment asks, "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder." Here is the data on that question over time - most recently, 65% of the public said they agreed that people convicted of murder should get the death penalty.

But that question comes at respondents completely detached from reality. In Texas, which is the acknowledged national death penalty leader, in FY 2007 we sent just 14 murderers to death row, while a whopping 1,078 entered TDCJ that year based on homicide charges. Even in the Lone Star State, the vast, overwhelming majority of murderers are not sentenced to death. When the question is presented to them directly, Texas' "death-qualified" juries usually don't impose the sentence. In 2007, out of 51 cases where defendants were convicted of capital murder, in 37 of them juries gave sentences of life without parole.

Juries are selected from voter rolls so there's a disconnect when 65% tell pollsters murderers should die but 72.5% of Texas capital juries fail to impose a death sentence. What that means, I think, is that the issue is more complex than it's presented by pollsters and people are smarter than such ill-informed, misleading questions can measure. When confronted with the real-world issues that surround killing by the state, juries balk more often than not, even in Texas.

I'm not inherently against the death penalty, though I certainly share fears that our sloppy justice system might convict and kill an innocent person. (Besides Timothy Cole, I mean.) I think death is an appropriate sentence for lifers who commit murders in prison - tacking on more years simply isn't a meaningful deterrent in that setting. Make me philosopher-king, and I also think it should be used only in cases (which is most of them) where the identity of the killer is not in dispute. At the same time, the cause of "saving" death-row offenders from a fate that awaits us all, when life without parole is the alternative, frankly fails to motivate me.

Perhaps there is some vanishingly small, short-term deterrent effect to the death penalty. Like the existence of a God that created man in His own image, I doubt it but won't rule it out. But in its current form, the death penalty is a political boondoggle and distraction involving a miniscule number of cases - a costly sideshow carnival act of the first order that distracts from more important discussions. Any legitimate cost-benefit analysis would find death-penalty deterrence doesn't measure up compared to underfunded but less-expensive programs that would save more lives and do more to reduce crime and deaths.

Death penalty cases easily can cost the county bringing them upward of $1 or $2 million each before they're said and done. (It'd be easier to justly complain about that cost if Texas didn't screw up so many cases - it literally doesn't matter if the judge slept with the prosecutor, our Court of Criminal Appeals will sign off on the execution.)

Would that money do more to promote safety if, for example, it were used to reduce community supervision caseloads or pay for ignition interlock devices on the cars of recidivist drunks? Almost certainly. But the details of misdemeanor probation conditions are boring things to debate compared to the death penalty, where everyone gets to claim the moral high ground, look down their noses, sneer, and accuse one another of "bias." That's all a lot more fun (and politically useful, one supposes) than prioritizing criminal justice spending on programs that demonstrably reduce deaths and crime.


Anonymous said...

I guess the point is this: if 12 lives per year on the average are in fact saved in Texas because we do have a death penalty, how can we justify NOT supporting the death penalty? Maybe this number doesn't matter much to the bleeding hearts and do-gooders, but I bet it would darn sure matter if you were one of those 12!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

My response would be, 11:50, if 12 lives per year might be saved by having a death penalty, but (to pull a number out of the air), 100 might be saved spending the same money on ignition interlocks for recidivist drunks (possibly more), the moral calculus changes. To turn the tables on your argument, maybe those extra 88 lives don't matter to you or the irrationally rabid pro-death penalty faction, but I bet it would if you or yours were one of the 100.

SB said...

My question is closer to home. We often hear victims scream for the death penalty. The execution is supposed to bring closure. There may be a momentary feeling of elation at the time of execution but then I expect it is back to the same pain as before. The difference is the focus of the anger is no longer alive. The public can scream anything they want to but I would like to hear "After the execution" stories from victims that have lived it.

Anonymous said...

That's a spurious argument, Grits. You could just as easily argue that money spent on ignition interlocks might save more lives if spent on chemotherapy for indigent cancer patients. It's all relative. Ultimately, this study appears to refute a central premise advanced by the anti-death penalty establisment: that the death penalty is not a deterrent. As a matter of policy, the death penalty is overwhelmingly supported by the citizenry in Texas and our elected representatives. The fact that the death penalty is statistically proven to save lives supports this policy decision. Moreover, the fact that innocent lives are saved by the death penalty--perhaps to the extent of 12 lives a year--also counters the concerns expressed by the anti-death penalty crowd that the possibility of executing an innocent warrant an outright abolition of the death penalty. Instead, as you put it, the "moral calculus changes." The discussion then becomes one of balancing the benefit of innocent lives saved vs. the risk of innocent lives lost.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You make a good point about spending on cancer treatment, 3:51, though you seemingly thought you were being sarcastic. In fact, government has limited resources and criminal justice may not always be the most appropriate place to spend them. Maybe we get more public safety bang for the buck, for example, investing in mental health or other healthcare services.

Death penalty fetishists seemingly don't care about maximizing public safety or saving the most lives - they think killing by the state is a positive end unto itself, even if no cost-benefit analysis justifies it.

It's false that the sole question is "balancing the benefit of innocent lives saved vs. the risk of innocent lives lost." In fact, government must set informed priorities about how it spends taxpayers money - they can't spend ad infinitum on one, ineffective thing just because it's politically popular. The public also "overwhelmingly supports" cutting taxes while simultaneously increasing government spending, but at some point reality must intervene in this Tuff-on-Crime fantasyland you'd have us live in.

PirateFriedman said...

"This study and previous ones show no correlation between the amount of publicity executions receive and their deterrent effect."

Maybe marketing deterrence through publicity doesn't work. It could be they get the message better through "network marketing", where would be killers talk to people who knew the executed killer or his family.

PirateFriedman said...

I'm not totally convinced anyone has accurately figured out how much the death penalty costs vs. LWOP. I think it is hard to add up the costs from so many agencies.

Specifically, I wonder if these calculations take into account all of the people who plead guilty to get life without parole. In these cases, money is saved through the death penalty, since trial is avoided. And how are they calculating how much health care will cost for an elderly LWOP inmate in the future?

Maybe someone could point me to the most methodical study of costs.

Alan Bean said...

I bet we could make a much bigger dent in the murder rate if convicted murderers were publicly boiled in oil after being drawn and quartered. We could make great strides in petty theft rates if we went back to chopping off the hands of convicted thieves. But I wouldn't want to live in that kind of society. My opposition to the death penalty is essentially religious--the practice conflicts with the Jesus-narrative that drives my convictions. The fact that Jesus was the victim of snitch testimony and wrongful conviction also informs the way I feel about the subject. Other folks choose different guiding narratives, so I'm not trying to argue that everyone should be moved by what moves me. I'm not even saying that all Christians should share my perspective (although they really should, you know). As Grits suggests, our opinions about the death penalty aren't shaped by statistical studies and are unlikely to be altered by them. The death penalty is a dreadful symbol even if we are only killing ten people a year (as opposed to, say, 45). I don't like what the death penalty says about us as a people.

PirateFriedman said...

I've always viewed the snitch story in the new testament as basically a way for the authors of the gospels to blame the Jews for his death. Never had the ring of truth to me.

Alan Bean said...

Judas was just one of three snitches used to convict Jesus. The Mosaic prohibition against single witness (Tom Coleman-style) testimony forced the authorities to procure at least two witnesses (sometimes through threats and inducements). The Naboth story in 1 Kings 21 provides an Old Testament variant on the same principle.

PirateFriedman said...

While I'm not a supporter of the death penalty, I will say that I don't believe revenge reflects negatively on us a society.

I think of revenge as a natural human emotion. Just like lust, anger, joy, greed and compassion.

Jesus wanted us to not give money to the poor, to not feel anger towards our enemy, to never fight back, to not get a divorce except in cses of adultry and that celibacy was preferable if you could manage it.

I'm not a Christian so I don't worry about reconciling it. But I figure, if you haven't given all your posseions to the poor, I'm not going to take any of your biblical opposition to the death penalty seriously.

Alan Bean said...

Revenge is a natural reaction, but that doesn't make it just. We don't allow friends and family members of a murder victim to serve on the jury for precisely that reason. And you're right, if you don't attach any positive significance to the biblical narrative there is no sense arguing about the Bible. I shared my convictions in that regard as a way of coming clean about what drives my thinking.

Anonymous said...

When the effect noticed is so slight, and the results are different than other reputable studies, including a study done by the National Academy of Sciences, I'd conclude that this study doesn't mean anything. You can have correlation without causation. I must say I question statisticians who would act as though these results are meaningful.

Anonymous said...

12 murders per 20 million people per year is not a statistically significant result - all it would take to offset that is some undiscovered murders - 12 murders called as suicides or death by natural causes, 12 people without significant social and family ties murdered and buried, and undiscovered. Acting as though this refutes the National Academy of Sciences study is pure foolishness.

RAS said...

They kill. they die.

Anonymous said...

Why do all of you pathetic pro-lifers / anti-death-penalty seemingly feel soooo much sorrow and sympathy for the murderers (even if the murders are vicious and sadistic)? Why do you cry for murderers, yet you don't seem to give any sort of consideration or have the same amount of passion for the victims and their families and the amount of anguish they go through?

I simply don't understand this impassive, callous, unempathetic mindset of people who are for abolition of the death penalty. I don't understand it at all. When I see these kinds of people arguing for the rights of murders, and NEVER arguing for the welfare of the victims (including family of the murdered), it's as though I'm looking at emotionless robots or aliens that are only arguing for the sake of argumentation, or for some misguided moral principle such as "killing is wrong under all circumstances" that you've already made up in your minds as absolute universal and philosophical truth.

The fact is you're all hypocrites that would NEVER practice what you preach if an atrocious act were committed to you or your loved ones. If your daughter was brutally raped and murdered and spat upon; or if some masochistic serial killer broke into the home of your mother and father and brutally tortured them by cutting off their genitals and forcefully sodomizing them with large objects, and forcing them to beg for their lives because he relishes in human agony; I 100% if any of these hideous acts were inflicted upon you or someone close to you, you would not be fighting for that perpetrator's right to live.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

RAS, didn't you read; that's not true. In '07 14 went to death row, 1028 murderers did NOT. "They kill, they die" isn't close to accurate. Probably never has been.

And to 12/7, 4:35: Who expressed sympathy or is "crying" for anybody? Who here said "killing is wrong under all circumstances"? Where does this nonsense come from? Please specifically quote the statements you think expressed those views so we'll know what in heaven's name you're talking about. It's JURORS who are showing more sympathy than in the past toward death-row defendants, it has nothing to do with anyone on this blog.

Evaluating data on deterrence and cost effectiveness does not imply that anyone is justifying death-row offenders actions. To claim otherwise, especially from behind a cowardly, anonymous veil, is penny-ante demagoguery.