NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Death Penalty Deters Murder

May 7, 2003

Using data from U.S. Census Reports, a correlation between executions and homicide rate from 1930-2000 can be shown, says William Tucker. His data reveals falling murder rates when the death penalty is implemented and escalating murder rates when the courts prohibited capital punishment in the early 1960s.

There is no way to contravene the logic of murder, he explains, except through the death penalty. No amount of victims' pleading or cajoling -- no promises that "I won't tell" -- will ever convince a robber or rapist that there isn't an advantage to escalating the crime to murder.

The only plausible deterrent is a qualitatively different punishment, he says:

  • If the punishment for robbery is a few years in jail and the punishment for murder is a few more years after that, there is very little if any deterrence -- but if the punishment for robbery is jail time and the punishment for murder is death, there is reason to think twice.
  • By contrast, eliminating the death penalty creates the exact same dilemma -- without any qualitative differential, there is no disincentive to murder the victim of the crime.

Almost the entire increase in murder from 1966 to the mid-1990s was an increase in felony or "stranger" murders -- murders committed during the course of another crime. Only when executions resumed in the 1990s did the murder rate drop precipitously to its 1960s level.

Source: William Tucker, "Deterring Homicides/With the Death Penalty," Human Events, Vol. 59, No. 12, April 2003.


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