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Capital punishment and deterrence of crime Essay

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Updated: Nov 12th, 2019


Capital punishment can deter crime. Many individuals oppose the death penalty because of moral and aesthetic reasons. The problem with these justifications is that they are susceptible to subjective interpretations. An economic analysis of the deterrence effect of capital punishment provides a rational and objective way of analyzing the effectiveness of such a mechanism. In this paper, it will be argued that offenders are likely to respond to the incentives offered by law enforcers concerning the commissioning of crimes.


Murder is usually committed as a result of some interpersonal conflicts or due to jealousy, hate and pecuniary motives. Sometimes, it may be a product of property crimes (when a criminal tries to eliminate potential witnesses or officers who may hold him accountable for his actions).

The propensity to commit murder (which is usually the main crime that necessitates the use of capital punishment) is indeed influenced by the losses and gains that can come from their commission (Mocan & Gittings 470). Most murders are committed against people who know each other or persons who have a relative degree of familiarity with one another. In economics, a person’s utility is affected by that person’s utility as well as the utility of other persons.

Utility is usually constrained by the resource endowments of the affected parties and also by the transfer functions. It is also affected by the penalties and awards that may result from transfer functions as well as the degrees of uncertainty created by these differences. For the case of murder or crimes that necessitate capital punishment, the incentive to commit murder is directly related to the uncertainties that punishments for the crime will generate.

When a person commits a murder, he/she will have to go through certain direct costs that include the planning and the execution of the crime. The offender will have to bear risks that will emanate from the punishment and conviction of the crime. If it is assumed that the offender behaves in order to maximize his expected utility, then the expected utility from the capital crime should be greater than the one that will come from another alternative course of action.

The probability of committing the crime and getting away with it will be the greatest incentive to commit it. The probability of committing the crime and getting a less severe crime is also another possibility. Alternatively, the offender may get caught and receive the harshest punishment, i.e. the death penalty. A criminal will consider these alternatives prior to commission of the crime.

If a deterrent effect is great, the probability of committing the crime is minimized (Alper and Daryl 44). In other words, the more undesirable the consequences of the crime, the more likely a criminal will avoid doing it, based on his subjective analyses. Thus, the greater the severity of punishment, the lower the expected utility for committing a murder. It means that capital punishment, which meets the threshold for highly severe punishments, will decrease the expected utility and reduce the propensity to commit crime.

There are a lot of evidences to support the findings stated above. First of all, a look at murder rates in states that support capital punishment over the years adds a practical dimension to this component.

It was found that murder rates in states that accept capital punishment have been reducing during the period 1970-1990 (Shepherd 15). This is only true after controlling for factors such as labor market opportunities, race, age and sex composition in those states. It should be noted that if these factors are not included, then it would be incorrectly assumed that capital punishment actually increases crime rates.

Researches carried out by Dezhbakhsh et al. (2003) have revealed that executions do indeed deter crimes. This study was done through a cross sectional analysis of crime data from a number of states following certain executions. It was found that crimes tended to decrease when executions were done and they went up when this was not true.

Department of Justice data were used for the paper. Trends in crime were analyzed in the exact period when the executions occurred. Additionally, the paper considered the effect of commutations on the implementation of crime. Murder arrest rates and death sentence rates were analyzed. It was found that there was a relationship between the two.

This implies that the higher the death sentences, the lower the murder rates. These facts hold true for persons who commit crimes of passion and for premeditated types of crime. However, death row waits have a negative effect on crime because they tend to increase it. Other famous economists, such as Dezhbakhsh, Hashem, Rubin, Paul and Shepherd (370), have also found thorough econometric analysis that for every execution that is done the country will witness eighteen murders less.

A number of other economic arguments have been made against capital punishments. For instance, it has been argued that death sentences may end up punishing an innocent person with very severe actions. However, when one carries out an economic analysis of this assertion, one would realize that the argument remains invalid. A number of people who are convicted for crimes that they did not commit are quite small.

This is especially the case because capital litigations for the crimes are quite lengthy. Most individuals tend to spend in death row approximately ten years. Consequently, the possibilities of catching a false accusation are quite high in those ten years. The execution delay minimizes the possibility of punishing the wrong person for a crime.

This means that arguments made against the ability of capital punishment to deter crimes based on this notion are indeed exaggerated. Furthermore, the country tends to dedicate a lot of resources in the litigation of cases that involve death sentences, as compared to others that involve less severe punishment. This intensity of litigation further minimizes the error rates that may emanate from the sentences that have been passed (Ehrlich 40).

One cannot look at the plausibility of the death penalty without consideration of the costs implications. It is important to compare what such cases entail to determine whether it would be more effective to use other deterrence measures. The next best judgment for capital crimes would be life without parole.

Case Costs Death penalty Life without parole
For 50yrs, 2% annual cost increase (Starts at 34,500/yr for death and 60,000 for life without parole) 3.01 Million 1.88 Million
For 50 yrs, 3%, annual cost increase 4.04 Million 1.89 Million
For 50yrs, 4% annual cost increase 1.91 Million 5.53 Million

As it can be seen from the above analysis, life without parole is more costly than capital punishment. However, one must do a long term analysis on the same case. It is accepted that the upfront costs for death sentences are too high.

The figures mentioned above are the average cell costs for keeping a person in maximum security cells; in other words, states spend approximately $24,000 annually to keep a person in prison for a capital crime. However, it has been shown that these are indeed conservative estimates. Other studies show that the average figure should be $34,200 for maximum security cells.

Conversely, death row inmates cost the government approximately 60,000 per year. Most of them will stay incarcerated for six to ten years. Therefore, the differences in costs will be mitigated by their short length of stay for death row inmates. A number of arguments against the effectiveness of capital punishments have focused on the upfront costs. However, there are a lot of problems when one looks at another alternative with life imprisonment without parole.

Since the country spends substantial portions on the alternative to capital punishment, it is not economically feasible to follow such a path. Deterrence effects should be analyzed on the basis of their cost effectiveness because it would not be wise to continue using such a method when it is not economically sustainable. This means that the death penalty is an effective deterrent when financial implications are considered.


Capital punishment is an effective deterrent against crime because of basis economic principles. First, it reduces expected utility of commission of a crime. An offender would reconsider his actions if the incentives given are diminished. The severity of capital punishment substantially reduces expected utility and therefore deters crime.

Furthermore, statistical evidence points to these findings. It has been shown that states that punish criminals using capital punishment have lower murder rates after controlling for age, sex, race and other related factors. Other direct analyses of death sentences versus crime rates have shown a decrease in crimes after death sentences. Some have stated that one death sentence deters 18 murders. Additionally, death penalties are more sustainable financially, so they will have a greater chance of punishing future crimes.

Works Cited

Alper, Neil and Hellman, Daryl. The Economics of Crime: A Reader. NY: Simon and Schuster Custom publishing, 1997. Print.

Dezhbakhsh, Hashem, Rubin, Paul and Shepherd Joanna. “Does Capital Punishment Have a Deterrent Effect: New Evidence from Postmaratorium Panel Data.” American Law Economic Review 5.2 (2003): 344-376. Print.

Ehrlich, Isaac. “The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: A Question of Life and Death.” The American economic review 65.3 (1975): 397-417. Print.

Mocan, Naci & Gittings, Kaj. “Getting off Death Row: Commuted Sentences and the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment.” Journal of law and economics 46 (2003): 453-479. Print.

Shepherd, Joanna. Murders of Passion, Execution Delays, and the Deterrence of Capital Punishment. Clemson University Working Paper, 2003. Print.

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