The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment - Dezhbakhsh and Shepard

The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment - Dezhbakhsh and Shepard

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The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Evidence from a “Judicial Experiment” * Hashem Dezhbakhsh** Emory University And Joanna M. Shepherd Clemson University July 2003 * We gratefully acknowledge valuable suggestions by the Editor Sam Peltzman, and an anonymous referee. We are also thankful to George Shepherd for helpful comments and to Christine Stemm for research assistance. The usual disclaimer applies. ** Please send inquiries to Hashem Dezhbakhsh, Department of Economics, Emory University, Atlanta, Ga 30322-2240; e-mail [email protected] : Tel. (404) 727-4679.
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The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Evidence from a “Judicial Experiment” Abstract Does capital punishment deter capital crimes? We use panel data covering the fifty states during the period 1960-2000 period to examine the issue. Our study is novel in four ways. First, we estimate the moratorium’s full effect by using both pre- and postmoratorium evidence. Second, we exploit the moratorium as a judicial experiment to measure criminals’ responsiveness to the severity of punishment; we compare murder rates immediately before and after changes in states’ death penalty laws. The inference draws on the variations in the timing and duration of the moratorium across states provide a cross section of murder rate changes occurring in various time periods. Third, we supplement the before-and-after comparisons with regression analysis that disentangles the impact of the moratorium itself on murder from the effect on murder of actual executions. By using two different approaches, we avoid many of the modeling criticisms of earlier studies. Fourth, in addition to estimating 84 distinct regression models—with variations in regressors, estimation method, and functional form—our robustness checks examine the moratorium’s impact on crimes that are not punishable by death. Our results indicate that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, and the moratorium and executions deter murders in distinct ways. This evidence is corroborated by both the before-and-after comparisons and regression analysis. We also confirm that the moratorium and executions do not cause similar changes in non-capital crimes. The results are highly robust.
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I. Introduction The contemporary debate over capital punishment involves a number of important arguments based on either moral principles or social welfare considerations. The primary social welfare issue, viewed as “the most important single consideration for both sides in the death penalty controversy,” is whether capital punishment deters capital crimes. 1 The death penalty’s deterrent effect is certainly an important consideration for several states that are now considering moratoriums on executions. 2 Psychologists and criminologists who initially studied the death penalty reported no deterrent effect.
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