Term Paper 1 - Capital Punishment as a Deterrent to Crime

Term Paper 1 - Capital Punishment as a Deterrent to Crime -...

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Crime and Punishment: Economic Analysis of Capital Punishment as a Deterrent to Criminal Behavior Economics 404 Robert Matthew Freeman Fall 2007 – Professor Hay rmf34
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While many Americans are untrained in economic reasoning, most use what an economist would call cost benefit analysis in both large and small decision making tasks. Common examples might consist of the following trivial situations 1 : Whether or not to continue watching television or walk the dog. Whether or not to do ones homework or go to the movies with one’s friends. Whether or not to steal a bag of chips from a convenient store, or go hungry. All of the above situations have consequences. If one doesn’t eventually walk their dog, the animal will relieve itself in the house. If one doesn’t complete their schoolwork, their grades will suffer, at the same time the benefits of going to the movies could perceivably be greater. Imagine a student who by forgoing school work to see a movie gets to know a cute girl of interest in his chemistry lab. It might have been worth it to be a day behind on work, and have made progress with a possible partner. In the case of the shoplifter, he might get caught, but the alternative could be failing to meet one’s basic physical needs. These examples are commonplace and most people can both foresee such a situation occurring and determine their course of action with little difficulty. One would expect the people in the scenarios to maximize their benefits while minimizing their costs. This is the principal of optimization. Obviously shoplifting is not a horrific crime by any means. There are mild deterrents in place to guard against shoplifting, because while the act isn’t socially optimal, it’s also not terrible. Most people would agree that being put to death for shoplifting would be far too severe. Murder is clearly a far more serious offense, so one would expect the deterrent to be far greater 2 . Were there no penal deterrent to murder, 1 Posner, 220. 2 Posner, 225. rmf34 2
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morals would be the last line of defense to hold people in check, and much like a world devoid of property rights, society as we know it would quickly head towards a state of chaos. The criminal branch of the legal system in the United States is in place to act as a deterrent to committing crimes. As Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and historian Thomas Fuller said, “Law cannot persuade, where it cannot punish.” If the benefit of committing a murder is greater than the actual cost then there is ineffective deterrence in place. If an infinitely rational criminal perceives the benefit of committing a murder to be greater than the cost, then we see the ineffectiveness of the law 3 . Some would argue that the murderer we speak of is either enraged, insane, or irrational, but in putting those aside and looking at the situation from an economic standpoint it quickly becomes evident that the murderer is making a choice just like anyone else.
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