Death Penalty As A Deterrent To Crime Argumentative Essays Examples

Type of paper: Argumentative Essay

Topic: Crime, Criminal Justice, Punishment, Penalty, Death, Death Penalty, Social Issues, Study

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2020/12/26


The imposition of the death penalty does not deter crime because statistics revealed a contrary effect and studies pointing to deterrent effects have been proven to be inconclusive. The lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty in 1976 by the United States Supreme Court largely stemmed from the work of an economist, who, with the use of econometrics concluded that every execution saves about 8 lives. A scrutiny of Uniform Crime Research statistics revealed, however, facts that would seem to disprove the contention of this research and others like it. Not only most of the states with no death penalty have violent and murder crime rates below that of the national averages, but some of these states have actually the lowest rates. Moreover, some scholars have pointed out errors and weaknesses in studies that claimed deterrent effect of the death penalty. Among the weaknesses pointed out are the insufficiencies of base execution variables, the omission of important factors, such as punitive and incapacitative effects and police detection effectiveness, due to the inability of the models used to capture them, and lack of standard statistical specification resulting in the uncertainty of these theoretical models.


In 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972) that the implementation of the death penalty by the states were arbitrary and racially biased. The reason for this ruling was that the Court observed the lack of uniformity and consistency in the application of death penalty by the states, such that in some cases it was applied and in others not. It also observed that it was most applied to black convicts in the death row. As a result, a moratorium on the death penalty was in effect, until the consolidated five cases of Gregg v Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976). In that case the SC lifted the moratorium and reinstated the death penalty. The underlying reason for the Court’s change of heart was the work of Isaac Ehrlich, an American economist and researcher who published in 1975 his work “The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: A Question of Life and Death.” The work’s underlying theory was that crime is a rational choice between illegal and legal activities and, therefore, the imposition of death penalty on heinous crimes made them irrational. Using econometrics, Ehrlich concluded that “an additional execution per year over the period in question may have resulted, on average in 7 or 8 fewer murders” (1975, p. 414). This essay will argue that death penalty, on the contrary, does not deter crime because there is no clear and convincing evidencing that warrants this conclusion. On the other hand, statistics show that states without the death penalty can achieve low violent and murder crime rates than those imposing the penalty.

Death Penalty does not Deter Crime

Death penalty does not deter crime because actual statistics do not support it. Homicide trends state by state shows that states in which the death penalty is either abolished or banned have lower homicide rates that those state that implement the penalty. A state either imposes the death penalty or not. Currently, there are 32 states that impose it and 18 states and the District of Columbia that have abolished it. States in the latter category include: Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin, and of course, the District of Columbia, which abolished its death penalty in 1981. Some of the states that have abolished their death penalty did so only recently, the latest being Connecticut. Michigan, on the other hand, abolished theirs 2 centuries ago in 1846 (DPIC 2015). A look at statistics on homicide and violent crimes show that some of these states have rates that fall below the national rate. As of 2013, for example, the violent crime rate in the US is 367.9 for every 100,000 population and the murder and non-negligent rate is 4.5 for every 100,000 population (UCR 2013).
Further statistics show that states do not have to impose the death penalty to attain low violent and murder rates – event the lowest rates in the country. This is proven by statistics from the Uniform Crime Rates. Eleven of the non-death penalty states have violent crime rates below the national average per 100,000 population: Connecticut at 254.5; Maine at 121.6; Rhode Island at 244.6; Vermont at 114.9; New Jersey 285.6; Iowa 260.9; Minnesota 223.2; North Dakota 298.7; Hawaii 245.3; Wisconsin 271.1, and; West Virginia 289.7 (UCR 2014). Vermont and Maine are the states with the lowest violent crime rate in the entire country. The only states with death penalty that fall below the 200 per 100,000 population mark and are not even close to Maine and Vermont are Virginia at 187.9, Kentucky 198.9 and Wyoming at 197.7. On the other hand, non-death penalty states that have murder and non-negligent crime rates below the national average of 4.5 are: Connecticut at 2.4; Maine at 1.8; Massachusetts at 2.0; Rhode Island at 2.9; Vermont 1.6; New York at 3.3; Iowa at 1.4; Minnesota at 2.1; North Dakota at 2.2; Hawaii at 1.5; Wisconsin at 2.8, and; West Virginia at 3.3 (UCR 2014). Iowa and Arizona, a death penalty state, tied at 1.4 as having the lowest murder and non-negligent rate in the country. This is followed by Hawaii, and Vermont. New Hampshire, Idaho and Utah all have 1.7 and are the only death penalty states, along with Arizona, to have murder rates below 2.0 (UCR 2014). All these statistics prove that death penalty does not necessarily deter crimes such as murder and homicide because states without the death penalty have achieved comparatively the least rates while death penalty states, such as Louisiana which has the highest murder rate at 10.8 per every 100,000 population (UCR 2014), has not achieved.
Moreover, the works of Ehrlich and subsequent researchers cannot be relied upon to effectively conclude that death penalty indeed deter crimes because of their weaknesses. Recent research has shown the weakness of the work of Ehrlich, and other subsequent similar studies, showing that death penalty deters crime. In the wake of the lift of the moratorium against the death penalty and building on the work of Ehrlich, the following deterrent studies emerged with their respective claims as to the number of lives for each execution: Moccan and Gittings, 5 lives; Dezhbakhsh et al, 18; Shepherd, 3, and; Liu, not only murder but other crimes as well (cited Fagan 2006). The implication of these studies pointed to death penalty as a necessary tool to scare off would-be criminals to engage in crimes punishable by the penalty. Nonetheless, these studies themselves are not anchored on solid and irreproachable mechanisms.
The pro-death penalty studies not sufficient to support the implementation of the death penalty because variables employed are insufficient to draw conclusions. Fagan (2006) suggested that the low base rates of executions, since the average executions rates of states is lower than one per year except Texas, weakens predictions and generalizations of these studies. This is because such a low base rate would be insufficient “to reach a disparate and heterogeneous population of would-be murderers” (cited Fagan 2006, p. 266). A deterrent effect according to Professor Richard Berk can only be effectively achieved with at least five executions a year. Moreover, Fagan pointed out that the regression model used by such research to predict murder rates failed to capture the “punitiveness of the criminal justice system or its incapacitative effects” (2006, p. 268). The result of such incomprehensive models is to drive up the significance of deterrence factors because of the resulting specification errors produced by the manipulation of covariates. In addition, the very important factor of police detection is omitted from these studies (Fagan 2006). Indeed, perceived punishment embraces the effectiveness of detection and one of the deterrent factors that could persuade criminals from not engaging in criminal activities is the possibility that they would be caught by the police. On the other hand, Cohen-Cole et al (2008) observed that the models used by the pro-deterrent studies do not follow a standard guide to statistical specification resulting in uncertainty as a common element of these studies. Using a model averaging approach, Cohen-Cole et al (2008) were able to prove that the deterrent effects claimed by such studies are largely dependent on the selection of theoretical models.
The death penalty does not deter rate simply because there are no definitive evidence to support the claim. On the contrary, statistics show that some of the non-death penalty states have the lowest violent crime rates and murder and non-negligent homicide rates, primarily Iowa, Vermont and Maine, in the country. On the other hand, some death penalty states have the highest murder and non-negligent homicides and violent crime rates. Moreover, studies that pointed to the death penalty as a deterrent to crimes are not beyond reproach. Some scholars have pointed out the weaknesses and the insufficiency of variables used in these studies that would not support a definitive conclusion that death penalty actually deters would –be criminals from committing crimes. The seriousness and significance of taking a life to save the lives of others or to ensure safety in society cannot be, therefore, amply justified by the principle of deterrence. In a civilized society, where killing is not acceptable, the implementation of death penalty absence a public advantage and safety justifications seems barbaric and indeed, a cruel and unjust punishment considering that it lacks a valid purpose. By pointing out holes in the work of Ehrlich, which had been the basis of the Supreme Court ruling in reviving the death penalty, the very justification and support of holding the penalty as not cruel and unjust punishment after all, is lost. The death penalty should be, thus, completely abolished.


Cohen-Cole, E. (2008). Model Uncertainty and the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment. American Law and Economics Review, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 335-369.
This article, which appeared in a law review, sought to impress the fact that deterrence studies and literature on the death penalty is problematic because of the absence of an underlying universal theory. Although the authors did not expressly claim that the deterrence effect is not valid, they suggested that due to this defect, the theory has a weakness that the advocates or researchers of the deterrent effect must acknowledge.
DPIC (2015). States With and Without the Death Penalty. Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved from
This article featured in the DPIC website simply presented states that have death penalty and states that do no implement the penalty. It also added important details, such as the dates with which the states imposed, abolished or banned death penalty in their respective jurisdictions.
Ehrlich, I. (1975). The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: A Question of Life and Death. The American Economic Review, vol. 65, no. 3. (1975), pp. 397-417.
As stated in the essay, this article, written by an economist in 1975, served the very important role of persuading Supreme Court justices to reconsider the imposition of the death penalty clause. The lasting impact of this article is the claim by the author that one execution saves 8 lives.
Fagan, J. (2006). Death and Deterrence Redux: Science, Law and Causal Reasoning on Capital Punishment. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, vol. 4, pp. 255-320.
This article, which was also featured in a law review, reviewed some of new studies on the deterrent effect of death penalty. It did this by sorting through their evidence, scrutinizing them from a scientific point of view, looking closely at the justifications of the claims from a causal modeling point-of-view, and examining whether they had been affected by the ‘rush to judgment’ phenomenon.
UCR (2014). Crime in the United States. Uniform Crime Reports, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved from u.s/2013/crime-in-the- u.s.- 2013/tables/1tabledatadecoverviewpdf/table_1_crime_in_the_united_states_by_volume_ and_rate_per_100000_inhabitants_1994-2013.xls
The UCR is a well-known database maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is a collection of data about crimes in the US submitted, on a voluntary basis, by law enforcement agencies all over the country. Statistics about specific crimes, such as murder, are available in the website including the number of incidents nationwide, statewide and region wide.

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