Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The death penalty as a deterrent

I know I've been harping quite a bit on the death penalty these last few weeks, with the developments in New Mexico, Colorado, and elsewhere, but reading this quote from Change.org really tickled me:

Only two murders in 1,000 are punished by execution. If you believe the death penalty is a deterrent, don't forward this post to a potential murderer - they might figure out that the chances of lethal injection are slim, and then who knows what they'll do.
Pointing out very well what any of us could discover by reflection: criminals are oftentimes not rational agents – and the worse the crime, we might think, the more genuinely deranged they are. Why do we think we might succeed in guiding their decision-making process?

1 comment:

dudleysharp said...

Even quite deranged criminals attempt to avoid detection when they commit their crimes. Why is that? Because they don't want to be punished.

Is there any group, be they criminologists, historians, psychologists, economists, philosophers, physicians, journalists or criminals that does not recognize that the prospect of negative consequences constrains or deters the behavior of some?  Of course not -- not even fiction writers so speculate.  Even irrational people wear seat belts, choose not to smoke and do not rob police stations because of the potential for negative consequences.

Many have discounted a deterrent effect because of the irrationality of potential and active criminals.  However, both reason and the evidence support that the potential for negative consequences does affect criminal behavior.

Criminals who try to conceal their crime do so for only one reason -- fear of punishment.  Likely, more than 99% of all criminals, including capital murderers, act in such a fashion.  Fear of capture does not exist without an expectation of punishment.

This doesn't mean that they sit down before every crime, most crimes or even their first crime, and contemplate a cost to benefit analysis of a criminal action.  Weighing negative consequences may be conscious or subconscious, thoughtful or instinctive.  And we instinctively know the potential negative consequences of some actions.  Even pathetically stupid or irrational criminals will demonstrate such obvious efforts to avoid detection.  And there is only one reason for that -- fear of punishment.

When dealing with less marginalized personalities, those who choose not to murder, such is a more reasoned group.  It would be illogical to assume that a more reasoned group would be less responsive to the potential for negative consequences.  Therefore, it would be illogical to assume that some potential murderers were not additionally deterred by the more severe punishment of execution.

As legal writer and death penalty critic Stuart Taylor observes: "All criminal penalties are based on the incontestable theory that most (or at least many) criminals are somewhat rational actors who try so hard not to get caught because they would prefer not to be imprisoned. And most are even keener about staying alive than about avoiding incarceration."

The question is not "Does the death penalty deter some potential murderers?" Of course is does. Any given potential of a negayive outcome deters some. It is a trusim.

The relevant question is "Can anyone prove that some potential murderers are not deterred by the death penalty?" Of course they can't.