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DonohueDeter - The Death Penalty No Evidence for Deterrence...

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-±- Economists’ Voice www.bepress.com/ev April, 2006 © The Berkeley Electronic Press The Death Penalty: No Evidence for Deterrence JOHN J. DONOHUE AND JUSTIN WOLFERS D espite continuing controversy, executions continue apace in the United States. Late last year, we witnessed the 1000th U.S. execution since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1977. The United States trails only China, Iran, and Vietnam in the number of executions accord- ing to Amnesty International. The debate over the death penalty has hung on several major issues. Here, we’ll concentrate on one: Does it act as a deterrent? The claim that it does, is for many people the main reason to support it. George W. Bush stated in the 2000 Presidential debates, “I think the reason to support the death penalty is because it saves other people’s lives,” and further that “It’s the only reason to be for it.” By contrast, earlier that year, Attorney General Janet Reno stated, “I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent, and I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point.” Gary Becker and Richard Posner have recently taken George Bush’s side, but our own comprehensive evaluation of the econometric evidence supports Janet Reno. T HE ACADEMIC CASE FOR THE DEATH PENALTY O ver the last few years, a number of highly technical papers have purported to show that the death penalty is indeed a deterrent. Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule initially argued, based on studies like these, that “capi- tal punishment is morally required” given the “significant body of recent evidence that capital punishment may well have a deterrent effect, possibly a quite powerful one.” In a reply paper subsequent to our review of the evidence, they have adopted a more agnostic tone, however, stating that “[w]e do not know whether deter- rence has been shown… Nor do we conclude that the evidence of deterrence has reached some threshold of reliability that permits or re- quires government action.” More recently, in the Economists’ Voice , Posner and Becker have adopted the position vacated by Sunstein and Vermeule. Posner claims that “the recent evidence concerning the John J. Donohue is a professor at Yale Law School and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Justin Wolfers is a professor at the Wharton School of Business and a Research Affiliate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
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-²- Economists’ Voice www.bepress.com/ev April, 2006 deterrent effect of capital punishment provides strong support for resisting the abolition movement.” Becker adds, “I support the use of capital punishment for persons convicted of murder because, and only because, I believe it deters murders.” The empirical research relied on by both Becker and Posner, however, is a skewed sample of available evidence: early research by Isaac Ehrlich, and more recent research by Hashem Dezhbakhsh, Paul Rubin, and Joanna Shepherd.
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