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Research Discredits Claims That the Death Penalty Deters Crime

February 22, 2021

In advance of the Biennial High-level Discussion on the Question of the Death Penalty during the upcoming 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, The Advocates and partners submitted a joint written statement refuting the idea that the death penalty deters crime. The panel discussion at the United Nations, which takes place tomorrow (February 23, 2021) aims to expose human rights violations related to the application of the death penalty and discuss whether the death penalty is effective in deterring crime. The Federation internationale de l’action des chretiens pour l’abolition de la torture (FIACAT) will give the joint oral statement related to the lack of deterrent effect of the death penalty on behalf of the coalition that submitted the written statement.

Proponents of the death penalty commonly justify capital punishment by claiming it is a stronger deterrent of crime compared to other punishments such as life imprisonment. This argument is based on a theory of choice in which potential offenders weigh the consequences of their actions before they commit a crime. Within this framework, a potential offender would think twice before committing a crime for fear of possible execution.

Research on the death penalty as a deterrent tells a different story. The United States National Research Council (NRC) identified two key deficiencies in existing studies on the topic. First, though non-capital punishments like life imprisonment are more commonly available than the death penalty in the United States, researchers do not measure the likelihood that someone will be apprehended and charged with a punishment other than the death penalty. This omission is important because research has correlated fear of apprehension with deterrence of crime. Thus, existing studies do not determine whether the death penalty uniquely deters crime. Second, existing studies do not assess potential offenders’ perception of the risk of execution before they commit a crime because those perceptions are subjective and difficult to measure precisely. These studies, therefore, fail to gather precise data on the crux of the argument for the death penalty: that a would-be criminal carefully calculates the risks of committing a crime based on his perception of the consequences.

Some data gathered in the United States correlate the abolition of the death penalty with decreased crime rates. For instance, state-level data consistently show lower murder rates in states that have abolished the death penalty compared to states where the death penalty is available. The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) conducted another analysis of murder rates in the United States between 1987 and 2015, finding states that had abolished the death penalty saw lower murder rates of law enforcement officers. As The Advocates and its partners pointed out in their written statement, this analysis “exposes the unfortunate reality that the death penalty and justifications for it are more politically driven than factually supported.”

Research has also shown that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent for crimes other than murder, like crimes of violence against women. In fact, imposing the death penalty for rape can be more harmful to victims because it increases barriers to reporting and perpetuates a stereotypical perception of women. Read more about the death penalty and violence against women in our December blog post or watch our panel discussion on the death penalty for rape in Bangladesh to learn more.

The Advocates and our partners conclude in our written statement that effective law enforcement, rather than severe punishment, is more effective in preventing crime. We also offer five recommendations to countries that retain the death penalty, including: 1) Halt executions 2) Take immediate steps to establish de jure moratoriums on executions, and 3) Educate the public and policymakers about the research and evidence showing the death penalty does not deter crime.

The Advocates for Human Rights, Parliamentarians for Global Action, the International Federation of ACAT (Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture), Reprieve, and the International Union of Lawyers will make a joint oral statement during the biennial discussion at the UN Human Rights Council on February 23, 2021. You can watch on UN Web Live TV, either live from 9-11am CET, or on demand.

By: Elizabeth Lacy, Program Associate for the International Justice and Women’s Human Rights Programs at The Advocates for Human Rights

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law.

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