The New York Times has a feature article this morning on new empirical studies by economists, suggesting that the execution of criminals may have a deterrent effect after all.

This research, which purports to show that each execution prevents several violent deaths, is highly controversial, but it adds a new element to the legal and political debate over the merits of the death penalty.

On the one hand, separating out any deterrent effect of the death penalty from other factors influencing violent crime rates is problematic at best, and scholars sharply criticize the methodology of these studies. (For a good review of the methodological and epistemological issues which may undercut these studies, see Donohue and Wolfers’ article, “Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate,” in the Stanford Law Review.)

But the seriousness with which these new studies is being taken can be illustrated by a comment from Professor H. Naci Mocan, an economist at Louisiana State University: “I personally am opposed to the death penalty … But my research shows that there is a deterrent effect.” Such erious empirical work by researchers without ideological bias adds a new twist to the death penalty debate.

Meanwhile, the consensus opinion seems to be that the evidence is inconclusive but mounting that the death penalty can deter homicides. The difficulty is that only 1 in 300 murders results in the death penalty, which makes the consequences of killing a victim seem remote at best.

As a result, the death penalty seems most likely to deter homicides at all when it is imposed frequently and swiftly, as in states like Texas. And in a fascinating comparison, the conditions of prison life may have a much more direct impact on the behavior of violent criminals: each death behind prison walls appears to deter many more violent crimes than capital executions do.

There are, of course, substantial moral and other considerations to the death penalty beyond the mere fact of deterrence.

And even if executions save lives, the cost may be prohibitive: at more than $1 million per capital case in many instances, even economists admit that any deterrent effect must be weighed against the alternative uses of that money, whether in crime prevention, safety, or measures to improve quality of life. Which adds weight to the argument that genuine life imprisonment may be just as effective as a deterrent (if not more so) than capital punishment and doesn’t raise the same moral concerns.

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