Effectiveness of the Death Penalty to Deter Crime

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Death Penalty and Its Ability to Deter Crime
  • The Impact of Death Penalty on Crime Rates
  • The Crime Deterrence Effect of the Death Penalty
  • Conclusion


Just in case you want to commit a serious crime, will you hesitate if you know you will be executed if you get caught? Your answers might depend on your own situation and it will vary from person to person. However, whether the death penalty can serve as a deterrent for crimes is really worth considering. Controversies over Capital Punishment, or Death Penalty, had existed since it was created and have now become a more disputable issue that largely affects a country’s well-being and domestic security. In this essay, you will be presented with some case studies about the relationships between the crime rate and the existence of the death penalty, and eventually, conclude that the death penalty does not deter crime.

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Death Penalty and Its Ability to Deter Crime

The essence of the death penalty to reduce crime is that people know that they will be executed in the future if they commit a crime and this threat is sufficient enough to cause a significant number of people to give up their thoughts to crime. (Death Penalty Information Center) To determine the relationship between crime rate and the presence of capital punishment, some statistical analysis would be really helpful for its capability of drawing clear a conclusion among complex data and side factors. However, it is not as easy as it sounds. Before discussing the death penalty and crime rate, let’s first focus on a similar case about cigarette and lung cancer. Some physicians doubted this relationship during the 1920s and 30s since almost all their serious lung cancer patients were heavy smokers. ( Lamperti) However, it was hard to prove the hypothesis was right since an experiment cannot be carried out, experimenters cannot ask non-smoking people to smoke and then observe their reaction, just like you cannot ask some innocent people to commit a crime and execute them. But why can’t people directly conclude that smoking cause lung cancer because most lung cancer patients are a heavy smoker? A thought like this will brings us in a logical fallacy called “after this…therefore because of this…”, which is an irrational decision-making strategy that will finally lead to the wrong conclusion (for example, it is a fact that leaves turn red during autumn, but autumn doesn’t make leaves turn red). Heavy smokers indeed have more possibilities to get lung cancer, but it doesn’t directly prove that smoke leads to lung cancer. In other words, there might be a third factor that causes cancer and it is also related to smoking. So, to address the problem, a more rigorous control group observation should be designed and more ‘third factors’ should be considered.

The question about the crime rate and the presence of the death penalty is really similar to the case discussed above. Both scenarios cannot be easily experimented with. Instead, some more well-design control observations are needed to find a clear relationship between the two factors and to find out an unbiased conclusion.

The Impact of Death Penalty on Crime Rates

During the 1970s, U.S economist Isaac Ehrlich researched U.S murder and death execution statistics. The study was carried out carefully with the consideration of many social factors, including unemployment, personal & family income, past criminal history, and so on. Ehrlich wanted to establish a mathematical model of the relation of crime rate to all other variables, as well as the existence of the death penalty. The research was really significant for this topic since it was the first time that multiple regressions were used, suggested that the conclusion should be less biased. (Ehrlich) As for the result, the curve showed a slight negative correlation. However, as he changed the time period for the model, despite some general aspects of each curve stayed the same, the slight negative relationship totally disappeared. So Ehrlich concluded that there was no obvious effect of deterrence, considered all those factors.

On the other hand, focused on considering as many ‘third factors’ as possible, as well as its feasibility, the Abdurrahman Boroumand Center in 2018, made a research of 11 countries’ about their crime rate after the abolition of the death penalty. ( Death Penalty Information Center) More specifically, they record the change of murder rate in each country, for it is defiantly a crime that leads to the death penalty in the past. To eliminate bias, all of the 11 countries meet the following requirements. #1the countries had officially abrogated the death penalty for more than 10 years. #2there was at least 1 death execution carried out before the abolition. #3the country’s murder rate data is available to the WTO, guaranteeing its authenticity and accessibility. The gathered data reveals astonishing results that among 11 countries, 10 of them had experienced a decline in murder rate after the abrogation of the death penalty. (Death Penalty Information Center) Six of those countries experience a murder rate decline for all ten years, and the rest 4 although experience some fluctuation in the murder rate in the first few years, finally reached an overall decline trend. However, the crime rate only declined by 6 murders per1 million population (Death Penalty Information Center), which was not significant enough to conclude that the abolition death penalty leads to the decline of the murder rate. In summary, in this scenario, the presence of the death penalty has almost no measurable effect on the general crime rate.

The Crime Deterrence Effect of the Death Penalty

Also, on philosophical and humanistic aspects, there are enough reasons to conclude that the death penalty serves no deterrence effect on crime. For instance, death is not deterrent especially for criminals of passion, who commit the crime because of a sudden strong impose like sudden anger or depression. (By the way, most murder cases are considered as a crime of passion) At that moment, they don’t consider the consequence, they just have a strong thought to fulfill what they plan to do. Although they might feel regret after they calm down, crime had already been committed, so the death penalty plays no role in preventing them from doing so. Moreover, sometimes the death penalty serves as stimulation for people to commit even worse crimes. Because sometimes if people are aware that they will be executed based on their fault, there is nothing more that can deter them, which makes them more unpredictable and violent. On the other hand, accumulated punishment would be more effective in this case since it can deter people’s thoughts to commit further crimes. The death penalty is like an end, a penalty in a moment, but the accumulated penalty punishes people by the level of severity of the crime. Compare to the death penalty in a moment, an enteral punishment would be more deterrent.


In conclusion, based on some well-designed studies and analysis, it is rational to conclude that the death penalty has no measurable effect on the deterrence of crime. However, whether countries should abolish the death penalty is still worth considering since we can’t predict its consequences so easily. More attention should be put into these studies to reduce crime and make each country more secure to live in.

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