Monday, November 19, 2007

Does The Death Penalty Save Lives?

The headline sounds absurd, but does it?

"According to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives. For each inmate put to death, the studies say, 3 to 18 murders are prevented.

"The studies, performed by economists in the past decade, compare the number of executions in different jurisdictions with homicide rates over time — while trying to eliminate the effects of crime rates, conviction rates and other factors — and say that murder rates tend to fall as executions rise."

In fact, virtually all of the studies presented in the Times piece are by economists, with the bulk of the research in rebuttal coming from law professors.

"Critics of the studies say they are based on faulty premises, insufficient data and flawed methodologies.

"The death penalty is applied so rarely that the number of homicides it can plausibly have caused or deterred cannot reliably be disentangled from the large year-to-year changes in the homicide rate caused by other factors,” John J. Donohue III, a law professor at Yale with a doctorate in economics, and Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the Stanford Law Review in 2005. “The existing evidence for deterrence,” they concluded, “is surprisingly fragile.”

What I like about the Times article is that over to the left of the first page, they have pdf links to a variety of studies both pro and con regarding the deterrent effect (or lack thereof) of the death penalty. And they raise an excellent point for those against the death penalty: if it can be shown that executions save even one life, isn't it worth having a death penalty from a societal point of view?

What I don't like about this trend, however, is the desire in academic death penalty literature to boil something as contentious (and legally fraught) as capital punishment down to an exercise in economic determinism. Economics isn't the point, and reducing life and death to series of cost/benefit equations degrades the debate and trivializes the issue.

"To economists, it is obvious that if the cost of an activity rises, the amount of the activity will drop. To many economists, then, it follows inexorably that there will be fewer murders as the likelihood of execution rises."

It seems more logical, however, to argue that as the literal costs of executions continue to rise, fewer and fewer states are applying capital punishment. And so far, as the pace of executions has decreased over the past decade, we've seen no corresponding increase in the homicide rate as a result.

In fact, when you compare homicide rates of states with the death penalty against those that don't have a statute (or who rarely use it), the homicide rates in those states that don't have or use capital punishment are lower than states which liberally execute inmates. It remains a fact that homicide is higher in states that apply the death penalty. As Prof. Wolfers points out, "Capital punishment is very expensive, so if you choose to spend money on capital punishment you are choosing not to spend it somewhere else, like policing.”

Cass Sunstein argues, “Those who object to capital punishment, and who do so in the name of protecting life, must come to terms with the possibility that the failure to inflict capital punishment will fail to protect life.”

To me, the notion that we are "saving lives" by executing people is like saying traffic fatalities "save lives" (because there are fewer drivers). It might be proven using econometrics, but that doesn't mean we should encourage traffic fatalities. And it still doesn't answer the obvious correlation between lower homicide rates and the lack of capital punishment.

We are likely to continue to hear much more about this debate in the months to come, as the Supreme Court prepares to consider lethal injection and the constitutionality of the procedure.

But I would also agree with Wolfer's contention that this is just so much distraction from the larger issues concerning violence and homicide. Addressing income inequality, for example, would go a long way towards reducing violence in ways that "learning to waltz with a cloud" in the death penalty debate, as Franklin Zimmering put it, takes away from.

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