Capital Punishment Crime Deterrence

Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1 Beginning of Capital Punishment

The death penalty, also know as capital punishment, is where a criminal is put to death by a governing authority. Capital punishment has been used since ancient times. The earliest sign of capital punishment dates back to the eighteenth century BCE. In ancient Babylon, Greece and Asia capital punishment was used for crimes such as property damage, theft and practicing magic. A code of vengeance between tribal groups, known as the vendetta system, involved the execution of criminals. This practice soon became part of the first legal systems [1].

1.2 Capital Punishment in America

The first execution in American colonies happened in 1608 in the colony of Virginia. George Kendall was executed after being accused of espionage. Only four years later, in 1612, many of the American colonies had approved execution as a form of punishment for crimes ranging from theft all the way to murder. The executions were conducted by hanging or firing squads and where often conducted in public as a deterrent [1]. Between the years 1776 and 1800, due to Enlightenment thinking, Thomas Jefferson recommended only using capital punishment in cases involving treason and murder. There were politicians who feared this would lead to crime rates increasing. In 1794 Pennsylvania restricted the use of capital punishment for murder in the first degree. This was the first time murder was classified in categories. By the year 1849 fifteen states had passed laws for private executions. Pro-death penalty advocates worries private executions would lead to increased crime rates due to the deterrence effect in public executions [1].

Michigan was the first state to abolish the death penalty in 1846. Rhode Island was next in 1852, and then Wisconsin in 1853. Public hangings were deemed inhumane and states soon started implementing new ways of conducting executions. Electrocution was first used in New York in 1888 and was adopted by several other states soon after. In 1924, Nevada began using gas chambers. These gas chambers used cyanide gas. This became the most common method of execution in the United States [1].

In 1972, the Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia ruled Georgia’s death penalty statute was unconstitutional. This was because it was applied in a discriminatory manner, which violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Therefore, it violated the Eighth Amendment which is cruel and unusual punishment. This case decision forced all states to stop executions in order to determine how to use capital punishment without violating the U.S. Constitution and the Eighth Amendment [1].

In 1975, thirty states had reinstated the death penalty which did not violate the cruel and unusual punishment. In 1976, the Supreme Court case Gregg v. Georgia, reinstated the use of the death penalty. Around this time is when lethal injection started to become a way of executions in order to reduce costs [1].

1.3 Capital Punishment in Today’s World

Many countries worldwide have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Many countries also still use the death penalty. Here in the United States nineteen states and the District of Columbia have done away with the death penalty. The United States ranked seventh worldwide in the number of executions carried out in 2016. There were thirty two executions that took place. China takes the first spot, where it is believed to be thousands a year that take place, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt [1].

Studies have been done that compare crime rates and the frequency of capital punishment. Data shows crime rates are lower in states that do not have capital punishment. In 2015, the highest murder rates were coming from the South, which just so happens to carry out the most executions [1]. DNA technology has exonerated many inmates who have been on death row and turned out to be innocent. There is much controversy over capital punishment. This comes from some thinking it is morally wrong to execute people, while others believe it helps alleviate some of the suffering for a victim and their families. It also reassures the public that acts of violence will not be tolerated and will be punished to the full extent of the law [1].

Figure 1: Number of prisoners on death row in the united states by race in 2018. [3]

Chapter 2: The Death Penalty and Crime Rates

2.1 General Deterrence Theory

General deterrence theory comes from the idea that the general public can be turned away or discouraged from committing crimes as long as they know what the punishment could be. This could be from seeing a case made public and showing the outcome from one person committing a certain crime [6].

2.2 Specific Deterrence

Specific deterrence focuses on the individual rather than the crime. The purpose is to discourage one from re-offending in the future. Judges will often give sentences that would achieve goals for general deterrence and specific deterrence. They do this in order to discourage the individual from reoffending and and discourage other individuals from committing the same act. There are two factors that can help in deterring crimes in the future and they include the harshness or severity of the punishment and the certain the criminal will be punished for the crimes they have committed [6].

2.3 Correlation Between Crime Rates and Executions

According to studies criminals weight the risk and benefits of committing certain crimes. In recent years it has been shown, through panel studies, there is a strong link between executions and decreased murder rates. Professor Isaac Ehrlich of the University of Buffalo and found the death penalty does in fact have a strong deterrent effect [4].

A panel data survey conducted by Professors Hashem Dezhbakhsh, Paul H. Rubin, and Joanna M. Shepherd of Emory University, in

Murder Rates in Non-Death Penalty States vs. Death Penalty States in 2016 [5].

1977 to 1996 was tested in over 3,000 counties. This survey found that for every one execution performed resulted in eighteen fewer murders, on average. Professors Dezhbakhsh and Shepherd used state level panel data to compare the murder rates and execution relationships before, during, and after the U.S. Supreme Courts death penalty moratorium. They found executions had a negative relationship with murder rates [4].

The Death Penalty Information Center’s website has information from the New York Times that shows states without the death penalty have lower homicide rates than states that do have the death penalty. The Times reported ten to twelve states without the death penalty have homicide rates that are below the national average. Between the years 1992 and 2002, the number of executions in the United States continued to increase while the murder rate was decreasing. During these same years the murder rate in non-death penalty states remained lower than those of death penalty states [5].

Chapter 3: Death Row Inmates

3.1 Race

For hundreds of years minorities have been victims of mistreatment in this country. California conducted a survey that found people who were convicted of killing whites were three times as likely to be sentenced to death as those who killed blacks and more than four times more likely as those who killed Latinos (Pierce & Radelet, Santa Clara Law Review, 2005). In Louisiana a study showed those who got the death penalty were 97 percent higher for those who killed whites than for those who killed blacks [5]. 

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