'Death Penalty Deters' Findings Did Not Convince NJ Inquiry

July 7, 2008 - 8:06 PM

(CNSNews.com) - New Jersey is moving rapidly towards outlawing capital punishment in the face of academic studies challenging the view that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to murder and despite opinion polls showing that two-thirds of Americans see capital punishment as morally acceptable.

Although New Jersey has a death penalty statute dating back to 1982, it has not executed anyone since 1963. It is now looking to abolish the death penalty altogether.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed a moratorium on the death penalty in 1976. Since then, notes Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) Legal Director Kent Scheidegger, more than 11,000 people have been murdered in New Jersey. That number of victims, he contends, would have been lower had the state enforced the death penalty.

Scheidegger made that argument before a New Jersey death penalty study commission late last year. He argued that there had been sharp reductions in the homicide rates of those states that have consistently applied capital punishment.

Nonetheless, the commission recommended abolishing the death penalty in exchange for a penalty of life imprisonment in a maximum security prison, without the possibility of parole.

Legislation taking up the recommendation has been drafted, and an aide to the bill's primary sponsor, State Sen. Shirley Turner (D), told Cybercast News Service that the death penalty statute could be history when lawmakers reconvene in November.

The deterrence value attached to capital punishment has been a matter of intense dispute since the Supreme Court decision in the mid-1970s.

Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Amnesty International claim the costs outweigh the potential benefits, and the possibility of an innocent person being executed has been a particular point of concern.

On the other hand, several academic studies have found an unambiguous link between executions and fewer homicides. A 2003 study by Emory University professors said that there are an average of 18 fewer murders for every execution.

Paul Rubin, a co-author of the study, told Cybercast News Service that there is "some level of thought" on the part of potential murders about the possible cost of their actions.

The Emory University study examined data from 3,054 counties throughout the country between 1976 and 1996, and factored in demographic variables that might impact the homicide rate such as age, gender, ethnicity and unemployment rates.

The authors said that because the county data allowed highly specific characteristics to be tabulated, they managed to avoid the imprecision of previous studies.

Using a statistical technique known as "multiple regression," the researchers were able to determine how many homicides would have occurred in a particular county in the absence of any executions and to compare this to the number of homicides that actually occurred, Rubin said.

He argued that the study's results demonstrate there are people alive today who would otherwise be dead in those states where the risk of paying the ultimate price is a credible threat.

Rubin stressed it is not enough for a state to have the death penalty on its statute books -- as New Jersey has had. It has to actually enforce it if the deterrence is to work.

In his testimony before the state commission, Scheidegger identified as evidence for the deterrence effect the situation in five states -- Delaware, Wyoming, Alabama, Florida and Georgia -- all of which "actively use the death penalty."

Other studies

Joanna Shepherd, another Emory economist, published a subsequent study showing that a certain threshold needs to be reached in terms of the number of executions before a deterrent effect can be established. Even so, she also demonstrated that an accelerated use of the death penalty would prevent a greater number of murders.

A 2006 study co-authored by Naci Mocan, an economics professor at the University of Colorado, and R. Kaj Gittings, an economist at Cornell University, supported statistical findings that show each execution results in fiver fewer murders.

"In the economic approach to crime, decades of empirical research has demonstrated that potential criminals indeed respond to incentives," they wrote.

Mocan and Gittings also challenged other analysts for accepting the premise of a deterrent effect in the case of some punishments, while dismissing such an effect in the case of the death penalty.

"...[I]t is sometimes claimed that because executions are infrequent events, they cannot possibly be strong enough signals to alter the behavior of people," they wrote. "Yet, the same analysts have no difficulty in believing that a prospective criminal observes correctly and accurately the extent of the increase in the number of arrests, and coupled with the information about the level of crime, he calculates the enhanced risk of getting caught, and changes his behavior."

But in New Jersey, death penalty opponents cited another study, released last year in the Stanford Law Review, that directly challenging the findings in the Emory study and similar reports.

Co-authors John Donohue and Justin Wolfers said they found "profound uncertainty" surrounding the question of deterrence and could see no tangible support for the notion of capital punishment exerting a major impact on homicide rates.

Rubin told Cybercast News Service that his team is preparing a rejoinder to the Stanford Law Review study. "It was a serious but flawed critique," he said, adding that Donohue and Wolfers "seem to cherry pick and manipulate our data."

The New Jersey commission also heard from Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington D.C, who cited data compiled by DPIC showing that murder rates were "consistently lower" in those states that did not use capital punishment.

In the end, the commission found that the arguments on deterrence were inconclusive.

"We were not persuaded one way or the other," Miles Winder, a commission member who represented the New Jersey State Bar Association, stated in an interview. He said the notion that some murder victims would be alive in New Jersey and elsewhere today if an active death penalty law were in place "is an interesting argument that does not hold any water."

"It wasn't convincing to me as a member of the commission," he added.

Winder said the "excessively expensive" cost of capital punishment and its incompatibility with "current standards of decency" also figured into the commission's decision.

'No balance'

In an interview, CJLF President Michael Rushford called the studies that identified a deterrence factor particularly noteworthy because they come from economists "who have no political axe to grind."

He noted, moreover, that at least one of the experts involved in the studies, Mocan of the University of Colorado, was viewed as opposing the death penalty, yet even so could not deny the findings.

By contrast, Rushford called into question the impartiality of commissions examining the use of capital punishment at the state level. They are not designed to look at both sides of the issue, he said, adding that the New Jersey commission's members were mostly opposed to the death penalty.

"It's like having Pat Robertson doing a study on abortion," he said. "There's no balance."

Despite vocal and well-organized opposition to capital punishment, Rushford said the public remains ardently supportive. He cited recent Gallup polling data showing that 66 percent of Americans view capital punishment as "morally acceptable" and 27 percent see it as "morally wrong."

"Support for the death penalty is fairly uniform across different age groups, political parties and between men and women," Gallup reported.

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