Is the death penalty actually a deterrent?

By Finn Bunting

Following recent news about Conservative Party MP Priti Patel’s support of the death penalty it is a good opportunity to look at some of the facts, and answer the question - Does the death penalty act as a deterrent to commit crimes?

According to Amnesty International UK, while the number of people sentenced to death has increased, the actual number of executions fell between 2013 and 2014.  

At the start of 2014, nearly 20,000 people were awaiting execution around the world. While 55 countries are known to have sentenced at least 2,466 people to death in 2014, 22 countries actually carried out 607 executions - a decrease of 22% compared with 2013 

The world’s five worst executioners are a familiar bunch: China, heading up the list at more than 1000+ executions in 2014, although official figures are a state secret; Iran, which officially claims 289 but sources suggest more; Saudi Arabia executed 90+, many for non-lethal offences such as ‘witchcraft’, ‘sorcery’ and ‘adultery’; Iraq, which allegedly executed 60+ people, many for terrorism related offences; and fifth place is the United States, where 35 people were executed in 2014. Indonesia is in the running for a top five place next year following the acceleration of their executions as a result of their staunch anti-drug stance, with 14 people recently executed for drug offences. 

Many claim that capital punishment is the ultimate incentive not to commit serious crime, as punishment resulting in death persuades others against similar acts. Indonesian President Joko Widodo recently said the death penalty was reinstated as the result of a supposed drug emergency in the country.“The death penalty is still our positive law”, he said. Widodo claims, “Every day 50 young Indonesians die [due to drugs], in one year that is 18,000 dead.” 

                                  Indonesian President Joko Widodo

                                  Indonesian President Joko Widodo

“I hope they understand about that" - he said, referring to foreign tourists. Patel herself said she supported the reintroduction of capital punishment “to serve as a deterrent.”

Using figures from the US, as they are the most reliable, executing criminals doesn’t seem to have resulted in any significant reduction in criminal activity. In fact, US states that don’t use the death penalty actually have much lower murder rates. 

Which the table below shows:

Year 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Murder Rate in Death Penalty States* 9.5 9.94 9.51 9.69 9.23 8.59 7.72 7.09 6.51 5.86 5.70 5.82 5.82 5.91 5.71 5.87 5.9
Murder Rate in Non-death Penalty States 9.16 9.27 8.63 8.81 7.88 6.78 5.37 5.00 4.61 4.59 4.25 4.25 4.27 4.10 4.02 4.03 4.22
Percent Difference 4% 7% 10% 10% 17% 27% 44% 42% 41% 28% 35% 37% 36% 44% 42% 46% 40%

A significant hitch in the death penalty as a deterrence camp is that in general, deterrence is only effective when the punishment occurs directly following the crime. But, due to the long length of time between crime and punishment in capital punishment cases its effectiveness is ultimately significantly reduced.

A July 2009 study by Michael L. Radelet and Traci L. LaCock found that 88% of the leading criminologists in the US did not believe that the death penalty deters people from committing murder. They also believe that its abolition would not result in an increase in murder rates. Quoting from their study: “the consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment.” 

The BBC reports from an Amnesty International survey for the UN back in 1988 conducted to try and work out a correlation between death penalty rates and homicide figures. This was updated in 1996.The study found: “The evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis. The key to real and true deterrence is to increase the likelihood of detection, arrest and conviction.”

So across a number of different studies throughout different years, deterrence has never proved to be a consequence of death penalty laws. In fact, in many cases the opposite is true. 

A last thought is this, is it fair for someone, whatever the crime, to pay for the predicted future crimes of others, that have no connection to them?