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Is the Death Penalty Effective in Preventing Serious Crimes?

Is the Death Penalty Effective in Preventing Serious Crimes?

Does death penalty serve the purpose when it comes to prevention of serious crimes, such as murder? Join us in our quest to find out whether it is as effective crime deterrent as it is pitched to be.
Abhijit Naik
Other than retribution, deterrence is one of the most prominent arguments that people put forth when they support capital punishment or the death penalty. It is no doubt one of the most-debated issues in the society today. While those in its support argue that it deters others from resorting to similar crimes, those opposing it, are of the opinion that it is not as effective as it is promoted to be. With both sides adamant on their respective stands, the layman is left confused about effectiveness of this practice in prevention of serious crimes.

As of today, 139 countries have outlawed this practice―a fact which is widely used by abolitionists to highlight its ineffectiveness in crime prevention. More recent statistics reveal that only 18 countries resorted to it as a part of legal proceedings in 2009. In 2010, 46 convicts were executed in the United States; of which 44 were executed by lethal injection and 1 each by firing squad and electric chair. The general opinion seems to be inclined towards death penalty though, with 64 percent of the Gallup Poll respondents voting in its favor in 2010.

Is the Death Penalty an Effective Crime Deterrent?

Basically, the death penalty is based on the belief that the threat of death makes prospective criminals think twice before resorting to serious crimes and makes them totally give up on such crimes. Even though the effectiveness of this practice as a crime deterrent has been used to garner support for it for quite some time, whether it really deters people from resorting to crime is an issue of contention. A study published in the 'Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology' revealed that 88 percent of American criminologists believed that it was not an effective crime deterrent.

On the contrary, several criminologists are of the opinion that the deterrent effect of punishment in itself is one of the several factors which prompt people to indulge in crime, so doing away with it can help us bring down the crime rate by a significant extent. The example of Canada, wherein the homicide rate declined after abolition of death penalty in 1976, is often used by these people to support their opinion. One has to also give a thought to the fact that those criminals who resort to a great deal of planning to commit some crime will never get affected by the threat of death. Same would be the case with mentally affected people and adolescents, who don't understand what death is.

Again the time frame between the sentencing of convict and his actual execution is quite lengthy, spanning a decade or even more at times. By the time this execution is carried out, only a few people (mostly the victim's and criminal's family members) keep a track of the trial. As time elapses, the deterrence effect starts decreasing. Even those in support of the death penalty agree with this and argue that the legal fraternity should speed up such trials and execute the convict at the earliest so that the deterrence effect is maximum. However, speedy trials will also come with a baggage, as the chances of an innocent person being sent to the gallows will increase, and that is something which we can't afford to do.

There do exist studies which speak in support of the practice. For instance, a nationwide study carried out by a group of professors at the Emory University in 2003 revealed that eighteen lives are saved for every convict sentenced to death. There is no dearth of such studies; some of these put the number of lives saved at 3 and others at 20+. The critics though, seem to be least impressed by these figures. While some of them are of the opinion that these studies are inconclusive, others out-rightly dismiss them saying that the methodology adopted is inappropriate. Those who suggest that the practice should be abolished also point to the fact that the crime rate in those states which have abolished it hasn't increased as dramatically as those in support of this practice would like us to believe.

Many people claim that the crime rate would have been higher than what it is, had death penalty not been there. However, there is very little statistical data to prove that it is effective in preventing serious crimes. It is impossible to determine how many murders could have been prevented or how many people have been killed because of the presence or absence of death penalty legislation. If we go by numbers, we have no option but to believe that the practice is not as efficient a 'tool of crime deterrence' as it is believed to be. However, we can't ignore the fact that without it, the instances of people resorting to serious crimes would have been at least 0.1 percent higher than what it is at present.