[Although legal in nature, this story is not typical ATL fare — it’s a bit too, well, substantive. But we suspect that some of you will have strong opinions on it. So we’re tossing it out for discussion, in the hopes of inspiring a comment clusterf**k.]
Does the death penalty serve as an effective deterrent to murder? Up until now, we’ve generally subscribed to the liberal view that its deterrence value is questionable. But a fascinating article by one of our favorite legal reporters, Yale Law grad Adam Liptak — who writes for the New York Times, no conservative hack publication — raises some interesting questions:
For the first time in a generation, the question of whether the death penalty deters murders has captured the attention of scholars in law and economics, setting off an intense new debate about one of the central justifications for capital punishment.
According to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives. For each inmate put to death, the studies say, 3 to 18 murders are prevented.
The effect is most pronounced, according to some studies, in Texas and other states that execute condemned inmates relatively often and relatively quickly.
Check out this quote:
“I personally am opposed to the death penalty,” said H. Naci Mocan, an economist at Louisiana State University and an author of a study finding that each execution saves five lives. “But my research shows that there is a deterrent effect.”
More after the jump.
Professor Cass Sunstein, no John Yoo he, had this to say:
“The evidence on whether it has a significant deterrent effect seems sufficiently plausible that the moral issue becomes a difficult one,” said Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has frequently taken liberal positions. “I did shift from being against the death penalty to thinking that if it has a significant deterrent effect it’s probably justified.”
Professor Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, a law professor at Harvard, wrote in their own Stanford Law Review article that “the recent evidence of a deterrent effect from capital punishment seems impressive, especially in light of its ‘apparent power and unanimity,’ ” quoting a conclusion of a separate overview of the evidence in 2005 by Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford, in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science.
“Capital punishment may well save lives,” the two professors continued. “Those who object to capital punishment, and who do so in the name of protecting life, must come to terms with the possibility that the failure to inflict capital punishment will fail to protect life.”
Of course, for every study, there’s an equal and opposite counter-study reaching the opposite conclusion. But this is worth noting:
The recent studies are, some independent observers say, of good quality, given the limitations of the available data.
“These are sophisticated econometricians who know how to do multiple regression analysis at a pretty high level,” Professor Weisberg of Stanford said.
The economics studies are, moreover, typically published in peer-reviewed journals, while critiques tend to appear in law reviews edited by students.
For some interesting additional discussion, see Doug Berman (linkwrap at bottom) and Jack Balkin.
Does Death Penalty Save Lives? A New Debate [New York Times]All the capital deterrence that’s fit to debate [Sentencing Law and Policy]
Does the Death Penalty Deter? Who Cares? [Balkinization]