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August 5, 2011

"As Britain debates the death penalty again, studies from America confirm that it works"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary from across the pond authored by Tim Stanley, a research fellow in American History at Royal Holloway College.   Here are some excerpts from a provocative (and somewhat one-sided) piece:

Britain is talking seriously about the death penalty for the first time in over a decade.... We can expect anti-death penalty campaigners to point to America as an example of why it should stay banned.  The usual images will be invoked of pot-bellied, racist, white judges sentencing innocent saints to death by chainsaw in some Alabama charnel house. Accepting the many obvious injustices in the US legal system, there is an instinctive British snobbery towards Americans that renders any comparison between our two countries unflattering.  Amnesty International, Liberty and the New Statesman will probably ask, “Why would we endorse a system of retribution practiced by those knuckle-dragging, Bible bashing, toothless crazies over in Texas?”  Well, here’s one good reason: it works.

From 2001 to 2007, 12 academic studies were carried out in the US that examined the impact of the death penalty on local crime rates.  They explored the hypothesis that as the potential cost of an action increases, so people are deterred from doing it.  Nine out of twelve of the studies concluded that the death penalty saves lives.  Some of their findings are stunning.  Professors at Emory University determined that each execution deters an average of 18 murders.  Another Emory study found that speeding up executions strengthens deterrence: for every 2.75 years cut from an inmate’s stay on death row, one murder would be prevented. Illinois has just voted to stop executions across the state. According to a University of Houston study, that could be a fatal mistake.  It discovered that an earlier Illinois moratorium in 2000 encouraged 150 additional homicides in four years.

Opponents will point out that the death penalty is practiced in the states with the highest murder rates.  This is true, but it doesn’t mean that executions don’t work -- it just means that they take place where they are needed most. The states without the death penalty historically have lower than average levels of crime.  When the death penalty was suspended nationwide from 1968 to 1976, murder rates went through the roof -- except in those states.  When the ban was lifted, the states that reintroduced the death penalty saw an astonishing 38 per cent fall in their murder rate over twenty years....

There are many failings in the US justice system; the use of the death penalty can be symptomatic of them, but it is not a cause.  For example, it is incredibly costly to execute a criminal.... But the reason for the decades criminals spend waiting for their execution is simple: money-hungry lawyers and sympathetic liberals keep on appealing their sentences. Another complaint is that the death penalty is biased toward black defendants. Tragically, this is true: 42 per cent of death row inmates are black.  However, this reflects appalling indices of poverty, social dysfunction and racism. It is not necessarily a comment upon the appropriateness of the sentence. Many states have taken the decision that, on balance, justice should not be suspended altogether just because it is applied unevenly. That’s tough and needs addressing, but law and order trumps abstract notions of equality in the minds of most voters.

But for anyone who wallows in the superiority of the UK justice system, with its human rights legislation and touchy-feely approach to child murderers, it is worth bearing in mind that our rate of violent crime is actually far higher than that of the United States. According to a 2009 study, there were 2,034 offences per 100,000 people that year in the UK, putting Britain at the top of the international league table.  America recorded just 466.  The US seems to be getting something right: executing cold-blooded killers might be part of it.

August 5, 2011 at 10:52 AM | Permalink


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DEATH PENALTY WHAT ?????????????

Posted by: Dott. claudio giusti, italia | Aug 5, 2011 12:25:17 PM

Somewhat one-sided ? Money hungry lawyers and liberals resulting in endless appeals ? Really ? Do we need to look at the statistics any further to see how many lives have been saved, from faulty, ineffective defenses and prosecutions in capital cases in this country ? Also, separate from the risks, lets compare the costs of death versus LWOP. There's no argument here, especially in these economic times (not that that should matter, but sadly, it does).

Posted by: Fed PD | Aug 5, 2011 12:35:33 PM

Doug --

The piece is indeed one-sided, thus partially making up for the gazillions of pieces from the DPIC, Amnesty International, the ACLU, federal defenders and various others that take a one-sided view AGAINST the DP.

One reason your site is so valuable is that it honors the tradition of the liberals I knew in college -- people who welcomed and honestly engaged opposing viewpoints rather than trying to shout them down.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 5, 2011 12:48:45 PM

Fed PD --

"Money hungry lawyers and liberals resulting in endless appeals ? Really ?"

Yes, really. Not as to the money hungry part, no, but for sure as to the liberal part. There is no sound reason a capital case has to go on for 10 or 15 years. If you are in fact a federal public defender (which I have no reason to doubt), then you can't help knowing that a fully reliable determination of who did it can be had in one-tenth that time.

The real reason the defense litigates capital cases to the hilt is to run the clock and thus drive up expense and delay -- hence to be able to argue (as you do) that there's too much expense and delay! Far out!

"Do we need to look at the statistics any further to see how many lives have been saved, from faulty, ineffective defenses and prosecutions in capital cases in this country?"

If there are faulty and ineffective defense lawyers, that is a reason to seek improvement in the performance of your colleagues. It is not a reason to punish the public by depriving it of the opportunity to enforce a punishment of which it overwhelmingly approves, and which the Supreme Court has held is consistent with the Constitution.

In addition, if you want to know where innocent lives are actually being saved, you might look to the deterrence studies the article notes (and you whistle past). As the decided majority of those studies demonstrate, it is the IMPOSITION of the death penalty that saves lives, and its suspension that costs them.

"Also, separate from the risks, lets compare the costs of death versus LWOP."

The way to reduce the costs of the DP is to put the bite on lawyers who file seriatim appeals simply to run the meter and the clock. This is not rocket science.

"There's no argument here, especially in these economic times (not that that should matter, but sadly, it does)."

Well, you're partly right. Cost shouldn't matter. This is real easy to see: If LWOP cost ten times as much as the DP, would you say, hey, to save costs, we should forget LWOP and just do executions?

No, of course you wouldn't. And the reason is that, as the public that actually pays the costs understands, it's a matter of justice, not of dollars.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 5, 2011 1:09:01 PM

death penalty is nothing more than a human sacrifice.
A very few are selected for the gallows and even less are actually assassinated by the state.
In old UK they had 35.000 death sentences and 7.000 executions in 60 years (1770-1830).It is 100 executions per year. With a population of 13 millions only in 1830 it is a chinese rate of 10.000 killing per year.

Posted by: Dott. claudio giusti, italia | Aug 5, 2011 3:08:54 PM

When I read this article, I immediately wondered if it had not been lost in the office for a while, intending to be published last April 5th. It is a woeful and misleading pipe-dream from an apparently pro-dp supporter, who clearly has nothing better to do in the summer recess. The death penalty is not on any agenda in Britain, though it is not entirely surprising that The Telegraph should publish this nonsense. With most of our politicians on holiday, they have to fill the gap with something.

Posted by: peter | Aug 5, 2011 3:46:22 PM

Please, read something before decide

Jeffrey Fagan
Death and Deterrence Redux: Science, Law and Causal Reasoning on Capital Punishment

Jeffrey Fagan
Deterrence And The Death Penalty: Risk, Uncertainty, And Public Policy Choices

Zimring, Franklin E., Fagan, Jeffrey and Johnson, David T.,
Executions, Deterrence and Homicide: A Tale of Two Cities (August 31, 2009).
Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 09-206; CELS 2009 4th Annual Conference on Empirical Legal Studies Paper.
Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1436993

Posted by: Dott. claudio giusti, italia | Aug 5, 2011 3:52:02 PM

This argument is nothing new, it's just largely ignored. The New York Times of all things ran a story about a dozen studies that established a deterrent effect.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Aug 5, 2011 7:34:40 PM

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? The deterrence debate is bullshit because the numbers are so small any statistical conclusion has error rates that make it meaningless. People support or oppose the death penalty for their own psychological reasons; the deterrence debate is just a fig leaf to mask preconceptions, in both directions.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Aug 6, 2011 3:27:43 PM

The legislative obstacles to repealing the death penalty are insurmountable, even if 80%+ of the British population was in favour of reinstating it. This is nothing but hot air brought on by the lack of any meaningful news while everyone is on holiday during the summer.

Posted by: John Smith | Aug 6, 2011 6:14:28 PM

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