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CRIME AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT - SOME RECENT STUDIES

NCJ Number
55300
Author(s)
A BARNETT
Date Published
January 1979
Length
13 pages
Annotation
THREE RECENT ARTICLES ON THE DETERRENT EFFECT OF THE DEATH PENALTY ARE CRITIQUED--ONE SUPPORTING DETERRENCE THEORY, ANOTHER DERIDING IT, AND THE LAST EVALUATING IT EMPIRICALLY USING HOMICIDE DATA FROM THE 1960'S.
Abstract
IN THE EARLY 1970'S, ISAAC EHRLICH ARGUED THAT SEVERAL VARIABLES COULD INFLUENCE HOMICIDE RATES: THE PROBABILITY OF ARREST, CONVICTION, AND EXECUTION AND CERTAIN DEMOGRAPHIC AND ECONOMIC FACTORS, SUCH AS THE UNEMPLOYMENT RATE, THE FRACTION OF NONWHITES IN THE POPULATION, AND PERMANENT INCOME PER CAPITA. ON THE BASIS OF AN ECONOMIC UTILITY ANALYSIS USING AGGREGATE DATA FROM 1933 TO 1970, EHRLICH ARGUED THAT IF THERE ARE RATIONAL MURDERERS WHO CONSIDER THE RISKS THEIR ACTS ENTAIL, THEN THE ELASTICITIES OF MURDER RATES WITH THE THREE PUNISHMENT VARIABLES (I.E., ARREST, ARREST AND CONVICTION, AND ARREST, CONVICTION, AND EXECUTION) SHOULD ALL BE NEGATIVE AND IN ORDER OF DECREASING MAGNITUDE. HOWEVER, RESERVATIONS EXIST REGARDING EHRLICH'S WORK. A POTENTIAL MURDERER WHO IS RATIONAL PRESUMABLY WOULD CARE ABOUT THE RISKS HE OR SHE IS TAKING, BUT IT IS NOT CLEAR, IN TERMS OF EHRLICH'S SCHEME, HOW THESE RISKS ENTER A MURDERER'S CALCULATIONS. OTHER PROBLEMS ARE HIS ASSUMPTION THAT THE WAY THE VARIABLES INFLUENCE MURDER RATES IS UNCHANGING OVER TIME AND THAT HE MAY HAVE IGNORED CERTAIN VARIABLES THAT EXERT INFLUENCE ON MURDER RATES (E.G., THE LENGTH OF SENTENCES FOR THOSE CONVICTED BUT NOT EXECUTED). BOWERS AND PIERCE ALSO FOUND FAULT WITH EHRLICH'S CONCLUSIONS, ARGUING THAT HIS DATA ARE OF DUBIOUS ACCURACY, THAT THE USE OF AGGREGATE NATIONAL DATA CAN BE MISLEADING WHEN DEATH PENALTY LAWS VARY FROM STATE TO STATE, AND THAT EHRLICH'S EQUATION MODEL IS INAPPROPRIATE WHEN THE PROBABILITY OF EXECUTION, GIVEN ARREST, IS VERY LOW. ZEISEL (1976) SUGGESTED THAT THOSE PONDERING THE DETERRENCE QUESTION HAVE GIVEN INSUFFICIENT WEIGHT TO A MAJOR 'NATURAL EXPERIMENT' IN THE U.S. IF DEATH SENTENCES ACTUALLY DETER MURDERS, HE REASONED, THOSE STATES THAT ABANDONED THEIR USE DURING THE 1960'S SHOULD HAVE SUSTAINED GREATER GROWTH IN THE MURDER RATES THAN THOSE THAT NEVER HAD EXECUTIONS. IN HIS STUDY OF STATE DATA, AGGREGATE HOMICIDE RATES CHANGED BY VIRTUALLY THE SAME MAGNITUDE; MURDER RATES GREW LESS IN THE STATES THAT GAVE UP EXECUTIONS THAN IN THEIR ABOLITIONIST COUNTERPARTS. (KBL)

Date Published: January 1, 1979