The death penalty is by no means a deterrent to crime. But it could be.
That doesn’t seem to make sense at first, but looking at a collection of data on the subject proves just one thing: you can’t prove deterrence either way. No major study has ever provided substantial evidence that capital punishment is – or is not – a deterrent to crime. That isn’t to say that it definitely is not a deterrent, but simply that it is not definitely a deterrent. The debate is inconclusive because statistical analysis fails to account for external circumstances relating to capital crimes and capital punishment.
For example, it would seem logical to assume that since the threat of jail or prison deters most people from committing crimes, then the threat of a death sentence deters people from committing the kinds of offenses worthy of the death penalty. But capital offenses like murder, and the motivations for such offenses, cannot be compared to less significant crimes like shoplifting or burglary.
It’s fair to assume that the decision to kill another human being comes with much more conviction than the decision to steal. The kinds of crimes eligible for capital punishment – and the people who commit such crimes – are far less susceptible to being swayed by the threat of punishment than “normal” crimes are. Consider crimes of passion, in which the offender becomes so emotionally overpowered that he or she commits a capital offense like murder. How likely is that person to consider the consequences of his or her actions?
Another factor that prevents a simple yes-or-no answer is the application of the death penalty itself. Being sentenced to death does not mean that the offender will be put to death immediately. The average prisoner with a death sentence spends more than ten years on death row due to appeals process. It’s worth noting that not all offenders who receive death sentences are actually executed, and even those who are will not be put to death, on average, until a decade after they committed the crime. Such a lack of immediacy in punishment makes it difficult to believe capital punishment deters capital crime.
Perhaps the most important consideration in the deterrence debate though, is the lack of clarity in statistical analysis. Often, the data in deterrence studies can be interpreted in multiple ways. Many studies, for example, show a correlation between the death penalty and murder rates – but one can argue either that high murder rates result in the death penalty’s existence or that the death penalty does nothing to prevent murder. Data that is not definitive either way prevents us from reaching a conclusion one way or the other.
Data shows no concrete relationship between the death penalty and capital crime. This is not so much an argument that capital punishment does not deter crime as it is an argument against a definite conclusion. Arguing that the death penalty is a deterrent hold no merit when no definitive and credible information has been presented either for or against the notion.