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June 17, 2009

"Majority of Leading Criminologists Find Death Penalty Does Not Deter Murder"

The title of this post is the heading to this new entry at the Death Penalty Information Center based on the publication of a new article now appearing in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology titled "Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists."  Here is the DPIC entry with links to more details:

Eighty-eight percent of the country’s top criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide, according to a new study published June 16 in Northwestern University School of Law’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology authored by Professor Michael Radelet, Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder.  The study, “Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists,” concludes: “Our survey indicates that the vast majority of the world’s top criminologists believe that the empirical research has revealed the deterrence hypothesis for a myth … [T]he consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment.”

Read the study here and the press release from DPIC here

June 17, 2009 at 10:07 AM | Permalink


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Criminologists as a group seem to resent the econometric folks invading their turf. I'm not sure they are more qualified than any other educated person to evaluate studies from a different field. Add turf-battle resentment and the notorious Political Correctness of sociology departments into the mix, and what you have here doesn't show much.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 17, 2009 10:54:16 AM

Michael Radalet is not some disinterested academic. He is a long-time and vocal opponent of the death penalty. One might wonder how he selected the so-called "top criminoligists" (as opposed to, say, ordinary criminologists) whose views he reports. A suspicious man might be tempted to think that the "top" criminologists turn out to be..........the ones Radalet already knew agreed with him!

Fancy that!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 17, 2009 11:38:00 AM

These studies/surveys are pointless. Death penalty opponents will predicatively tout them as conclusive. Death penalty advocates will respond with the predictive response of Bill and Kent above. Has anything been advanced?

Posted by: What's the point? | Jun 17, 2009 12:17:57 PM

What's the point? -- Since people tend to be in stone on the subject of the death penalty, an argument could be made that ANY further discussion of it is pointless. But unless one adopts that view, it seems worthwhile to point out, in the face of what is advertised as an academic study, that there are reasons for skepticism.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 17, 2009 12:34:54 PM

What the point's "both sides are impossibly predictable and interested" is itself a predictable dodge from the possibility that one party to a debate could be right and the other party could be wrong and we could actually mediate between the two. So MSM.

Whether the death penalty deters murder is not really the key question. Even if it does, that says very little about whether we should have it as public policy. Imposing a maximum speed limit of 25 mph on the Interstate would deter fatal car accidents -- and save a lot more lives than ending murder in the U.S. But we don't do it, because the benefit is not worth the cost. More pressing questions are, is the death penalty -- even if it does deter murder -- worth the cost? Can we get similar deterrence through other, less costly policies like LWOP or like devoting more resources to solving unsolved cases? Deterrence can be a dodge and a distraction.

Posted by: dm | Jun 17, 2009 12:49:45 PM

I am quite disappointed in Prof. Berman. After the thankless hard work I have put in here, he is still putting up stuff like this without criticism. It is as if my hard work has gone unheard.

The Dose-Response Curve must be worked out for all remedies, especially legal remedies. Few if any legal remedies has a scientific study ahead of time. If anyone knows of some, I would like to start to collect them. Some legal remedies have post remedies studies. Many turn out to be catastrophic and get repealed. This is irresponsible, unauthorized human experimentation by lawyer with ghoulish results. Any remedy missing a prior study is a crime against humanity. Worse, it makes judges appear to be acting like know nothing two year-olds, throwing valuable vases about, chaotically, knowing nothing about what they are doing. It brings opprobrium on the rule of law. This has to change at this late date in history.


1) What dose is too little and will fail to work?

2) What dose is too high and will be toxic?

3) What is the window of time during which the correct dose must be applied? If a breast tumor is the size of a pea, it responds to surgical removal. If time has passed, and it is the size of a softball and has spread to the lymph nodes, surgery will not work.

4) What types of people will respond (host factors)?

5) How many times will the remedy have to get applied before being declared ineffective?

6) What are the limits of the remedy?

7) What is the cost of the remedy, excluding rent seeking and gouging?

8) Prove the remedy is superior to others or to doing nothing.

Until those questions are answered, no conclusion has merit.

Did the experts answer those questions about the limited application of the death penalty (underdosing, too late, to too few people, at exorbitant costs, to innocent people)?

As an utilitarian, I know without testing, the deceased have a low recidivism rate.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 17, 2009 12:56:45 PM

Bill Otis says "one might wonder" how the author selected his list. Well, one might only wonder that until one read the article:

"To shed light on this dispute, we drew up a list in mid-2008 of every living person who (1) was a Fellow in the American Society of Criminology (ASC),69 (2) had won the ASC’s Sutherland Award, the highest award given by that organization for contributions to criminological theory, or (3) was a president of the ASC between 1997 and the present. The American Society of Criminology was founded in 1941 and is the world’s largest organization of academic criminologists, boasting a
membership in 2008 of 3,500 criminologists from fifty countries."

Posted by: Texas Lawyer | Jun 17, 2009 6:09:17 PM

Texas Lawyer -- And then one might wonder about why those criteria got selected, as opposed to different criteria that would also have produced a distinguished group of criminologists -- but maybe a group not so predisposed to Radalet's point of view.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 17, 2009 6:51:27 PM

We know academic criminologists will only permit PC orthodoxies. Anyone promoting crime control would threaten the jobs and grants of the members, and would be expelled. There is likely zero tolerance for 123D, for example. Most of these academics likely believe poverty is a cause of crime. Only massive transfer of wealth, mostly to government service providers and academics, can solve the crime problem. Was a question on that belief included, as a validation question?

Reading this study would be as productive as time spent on the North Korean News Agency.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 18, 2009 7:10:46 AM

From "Jaws" (paraphrased):

Robert Shaw: Dogfish? Marlin? Bit through this piano wire?? Don't you tell me my business again, Mr. Hooper.

Richard Dreyfuss: Quint, that doesn't prove a damn thing!

Shaw: Well, it proves one thing, Mr. Hooper; it proves you wealthy college boys don't have the sense to admit when you're wrong.

(For the confused, this is apropos of Bill Otis making no excuses, despite being called on slamming a study based on what he expected it to say, without even skimming it to determine its methodology.)

Posted by: Knee jerk | Jun 19, 2009 10:24:19 AM

Knee: Do you spend time reading the North Korean News Agency? You know it is biased garbage. The sole rebuttal is to put a drone missile into the outhouse of its owner when he is indisposed reading the Sears Catalog for golf clubs.

I would like to see all left wing professors purged from any university receiving public funding. Why on earth would the taxpayer fund those seeking to destroy our nation?

All criminal lovers, get out of our publicly funded institutions. There should be zero tolerance for criminal lovers and lawyer rent seeking, its being a polite phrase for armed robbery. The Free Speech Clause does not immunize the advocacy of an ongoing crime in the real world. Because the criminal lover controls the three branches of government, direct action by students, parents, and alumni is needed. All criminal lover advocacy should be recorded and used to pressure the administration to fire the criminal lover. Zero tolerance.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 19, 2009 8:40:22 PM

Criminologists in addition to using statistics also do field work where they interview the
1) General public.
2) Victims and their families and friends.
3) Perpetrators and their families and friends.
4) Police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges.
5) Members of the legislature.

As a consequence they are well informed about criminal justice issues in general and the death penalty issue in particular. In spite of this for both surveys the results on the deterrent value of the DP were not unanimous.

The decision to use the death penalty is made by individual members of the legislature and the governor also plays a role because of their veto power. I do not think that they give much weight to contradictory opinion surveys or statistical studies in deciding how to vote or use the veto power. They give much more weight to the views of the constituents that care enough to write or make face-to-face contact with them.

Posted by: John Neff | Jun 21, 2009 3:00:53 PM

Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock
Dudley Sharp, contact info below

Subject:"Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists", by Michael Radelet, Traci Lacock (1)

There appears to be a lot of confusion, with regard to the actual findings of the subject review/survey (hereinafter "Survey").


Within this Survey, the response to question 12 finds that 100% (or 77) of the criminologists agree that the death penalty may deter some.

It is a rational conclusion. All prospects of a negative outcome/consequence deter the behavior of some. It is a truism.

The responses to question 8 found that 61% (or 46) of the criminologists found some support for the deterrent effects of the death penalty through the empirical, social science studies.

16 recent studies, inclusive of their defenses (2), find for death penalty deterrence. These studies find executions deter from 4-28 murders per execution.

Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life. No surprise.

If your public policy question is "Does the death penalty deter?" The answer is "Of course it does."

Game over? Not quite.

Can we accurately and convincingly measure how many innocent lives are spared because of the deterrent effect of the death penalty? Unlikely. Social sciences are not exact sciences. Even if all protocols and data are sound, results will still vary from study to study. This public policy debate is so contentious, in academia, as elsewhere, that there will always be some disagreement over methodology and results. Therefore, the "convincingly" will always be problematic with such studies.

The question is not "Does the death penalty deter?" It does. The question is "Will there every be full agreement on how much the death penalty deters?" There won't be.


The first three survey questions are specific to murder rates and deterrence. Both reason and social science have known, for a very long time, that murder rates are not how deterrence is established.

For example, look at crime rates. Some jurisdictions have high crime rates, some low - from year to year crime rates go up, down or stay, roughly, the same. In all of those circumstances, we know that some potential criminals are deterred from committing crimes.

It is the same with all which deters, inclusive of the death penalty. Whether murder rates go up or down, whether they are high or low, there will be fewer net murders with the death penalty and more net murders without it.

Would Radelet/Lacock or the criminologists say that no criminals are deterred because one jurisdiction has higher crime rates than another or because crime rates have risen? Of course not. It would be silly to even suggest such a thing.

But, it appears that is what Radelt/Lacock are trying to do with there first three questions. It's nonsense.

Questions 4 and 5 deal with political implications, which have no relevance to deterrence.

Statement 6 "The death penalty significantly reduces the number of homicides". Nearly 57% (or 43) of criminologists said the statement was totally inaccurate.

How do the authors quantify a "significant reduction" in murders? They don't. Therefore, no one has a clue as to what the authors or respondents meant.

How many innocent lives saved by deterrence is insignificant? There is no insignificant number.

One deterred is significant if it is your child's life saved. Is 2-5 innocents saved per year or per execution a significant reduction? 11-25, 112-210, 1800-2800? What is a "significant reduction" in homicides for these 43 criminologists?

There is a reason Radelet/Lacock didn't say: "The death penalty deters no one." No one can rationally, or truthfully, make such a statement.

Question 7 regards whether the death penalty is a stronger deterrent to homicide than a life sentence. 91%, or a total of 67, of the criminologists said no.

Even if the death penalty is only equal in value as a life sentence, as a deterrent, then the death penalty is an important deterrent.

There are several major tiebreakers in this "equality".

First, look at those murderers who were not deterred. About 99.9% of all of those murderers who face the death penalty either plea bargain to a life sentence, go to trial, seeking a life sentence, argue for life, not death, in the punishment phase of their trials and fight a, seemingly, never ending appellate battle to stay alive while they are on death row.

If 99.9% of death penalty eligible murderers not deterred, tell us they fear execution more than life, what about those more reasoned, potential murderers, who have chosen not to murder? Is it possible that they, like most of us, prefer life over death and fear death more than life?

Secondly, there are a number of real life stories of potential murderers who have stated that it was the death penalty that prevented them from committing murder. This is known as the individual deterrent effect. In these cases, the death penalty was an enhanced deterrent over a life sentence, just as the first example found. In addition, individual, enhanced deterrence cannot exist without general, enhanced deterrence. Therefore, there is a general, enhanced deterrent.

Thirdly, if we are unsure about deterrence, there is no "equality" in the results of our choices.

If there is deterrence and we execute, we save innocent lives via deterrence and by preventing murderers from ever harming again. If there is deterrence and we fail to execute, we sacrifice more innocent lives by reduced deterrence and, additionally, put more innocents at risk, because living murderers are always more likely to harm again, than are executed ones. If there is no deterrence and we execute, we protect more innocents because of enhanced incapacitation. If there is no deterrence and we don't execute, more innocents are at risk because the murderer is still alive.

The weight of the evidence is that the death penalty is an enhanced deterrent over a life sentence and any deterrence is significant for many of us.

There is a reason Radelet/Lacock didn't ask: "Can you prove the death penalty does not deter some who were not deterred by a life sentence?" Answer: Of course not.

Radelet/Lacock may misinterpret how important deterrence is to the argument for capital punishment.

No one can support the death penalty, solely, because of deterrence, because they first must find the sanction just and deserved. Just ask anyone that says they support the death penalty solely because of deterrence: "If you didn't find the person deserved the death penalty, would you still support their execution because of deterrence?"

80% of those polled in the US support the death penalty for death eligible, capital murders. (3)

The Survey review appears to agree that deterrence is not much of a foundation for death penalty support. Folks support the death penalty because it is a just and appropriate sanction for the crimes committed - the same reason they support all legal sanctions.

However, Radelet/Lacock overlooked that death penalty deterrence appears to be a significant threat to anti death penalty folks. That is because a deterrent effect will mean that in achieving their goals anti death penalty folks will be sparing the lives of murderers, at the cost of more innocents murdered. It is a tough result for anti death penalty folks who find themselves with a terrible dilemma.

The death penalty saves lives, in at least three ways, over a life sentence, - enhanced incapacitation, enhanced due process and enhanced deterrence. Yet, those benefits remain secondary to execution being a just and appropriate sanction for some murders.


Pretend that there is 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.

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

This prospect is neither inconclusive nor 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.

Let's look at what criminologists are not saying. They are not saying "The death penalty deters no one." They can't. Reason, common sense and human experience all find that the prospects of a negative outcome/consequence deter some. It is a truism.

Why would the most severe criminal sanction be the only one that doesn't deter some? It wouldn't be.

All legal sanctions deter some.

This debate is often turned backwards, with anti death penalty folks saying "There is no deterrent effect of the death penalty." or asking "Can you prove there is a deterrent effect?"

As all prospects of a negative outcome/consequence deter some, the burden of proof is not on those who say the death penalty deters, but on those who say it does not. Can death penalty opponents prove that the death penalty does not deter some? Of course not.

What social science conflicts with the notion that the potential for negative outcomes/consequences restrains the behavior of some? There are none. Execution is the most serious negative outcome/consequence that a murderer may face.


This Survey was funded by Sheilah's Fund at the Tides Foundation in San Francisco and was arranged through the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) in Washington, D.C.

The Tides Foundation Death Penalty Mobilization Fund's sole purpose is the end of the death penalty. Sheilah's Fund is a direct contributor to anti death penalty efforts, as well.

The DPIC is one of the leading anti death penalty groups in the US and, in my opinion, is one of the most deceptive.

Prof. Radelet has been one of the most active anti death penalty activists for decades.

Jeffrey Fagan is a ASC Fellow and has been an anti death penalty activist for decades.

For context and perspective, it is important to look at the recent past and current positions of the American Society of Criminology (ASC).

Not long ago, the subtitle to the ASC Death Penalty Resources page was “Anti-Capital Punishment Resources”. They were a proud anti death penalty organization. As today, ASC listed few, if any, capital punishment resources which had a positive view of the death penalty.

If you visit their site, today, and go to their death penalty material, references and links, it is almost all anti death penalty. Their referenced essays are typical anti death penalty material that are, easily, contradicted.

This is not uncommon in academia.

The ASC has an official position against the death penalty.

Bias can be overcome and studies/reviews can be accurate and reliable despite bias. It is always a benefit to the reader to know the bias of the funding agency and author(s) of any study/review.

1) Northwestern University School of Law's Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

2) As noted in the Survey, the study authors have not replied to all criticisms of their econometric studies finding for deterrence, just some. That often reflects that the authors found no reason for a defense because the criticism was unworthy of rebuttal (my suspicion with Fagan) or they have not yet published a response (my suspicion with Berk). The fact that 61% of the criminologists find some credibility with deterrence, as detected by the empirical studies is important.

Some of the 16 studies and their defenses
Article on Death Penalty Deterrence, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation

3) Most quoted polls wrongly poll for murder, not capital murders. The death penalty is only an option in limited capital, death eligible murders.EXAMPLES: (1)82% in the US favored executing Saddam Hussein. In Great Britain: 69%, France: 58%, Germany: 53%, Spain: 51%, Italy: 46%. (Le Monde (France) , 12/06); (2)81% support Timothy McVeigh’s execution – “the consensus of all major groups, including men, women, whites, nonwhites, “liberals” and “conservatives.” 16% oppose (Gallup 5/2/01); (3) 85% of liberal Connecticut supported serial/rapist murderer Michael Ross’ “voluntary” execution (Quinnipiac 1/12/05); (4) 79% support death penalty for terrorists (4/26/2007 New York State poll); (5) 78% of Nebraskans support death penalty for “heinous crimes.” 16% opposed.(MPB Public Affairs Poll, 2/14/08).

Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail [email protected] 713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jul 2, 2009 3:29:34 PM

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