I’ve long thought that the death penalty as implemented here in the U.S. is expensive, unpopular, ineffective, inaccurate, and ought to, itself, be put down. It’s popped up in the news again lately, and parts of the recent flurry of comments are interesting to note.

It looks like I may have to revise my opinion of ‘ineffective’. Naci Mocan and R. Kaj Gittings have a few papers investigating links between executions carried out vs. future homicides committed. They finds that executions cause fewer homicides, while commutations of sentences cause increases. Their second paper finds that crime may be preventable with the proper conditions that produce incentives to work for gain legally.

From the AP:

“Science does really draw a conclusion. It did. There is no question about it. “The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect. The results are robust, they don’t really go away. I oppose the death penalty. But my results show that the death penalty [deters] — what am I going to do, hide them?”

I have to applaud Prof. Mocan for sticking to his observations when they fly in the face of his personal views. Parts of both papers show the echoes of reviewers and emotionalists attempting to chastise him for publishing findings that are inconvenient to their pet causes:

“Although these results demonstrate the existence of the deterrent effect of capital punishment, it should be noted that there remain a number of significant issues surrounding the imposition of the death penalty. For example, although the Supreme Court of the United States remains unconvinced that there exists racial discrimination in the imposition of the death penalty, recent research points to the possibility of such discrimination. Along the same lines, there is evidence indicating that there is discrimination regarding who gets executed and whose sentence gets commuted once the death penalty is received. Given these concerns, a stand for or against capital punishment should be taken with caution.”

The fact that Prof. Mocan has to add that to his papers is a sad demonstration that his colleagues are no longer scientists (even when loosely applying that term to a science as soft as economics), but activists — determined to further their cause regardless of the actual empirical data. Nearly a full page of his second paper is spent explaining that ‘just because his findings show a deterrent effect, that doesn’t mean that everyone should drop what their doing and kill a death-row inmate.’ This shows that his colleagues, newcomers to the world of moral reasoning, are still adjusting to how to deal with research that conflicts with what they decided the result “must be”.

So capital punishment is apparently slightly effective. It’s still expensive, unpopular, and ridiculously inaccurate. (Way to Go, Illinois! You’re #2!) It will be interesting to watch the lawyers-cum-researchers stretch their pundit wings and opine back and forth about this for a few years before deciding to sue each other into silence. The flurry of comments this year are significant because the author is stating the unfashionable opinion (but still distancing himself personally from it). The real state of the practice in this country will likely go untouched by these numbers, as most people approach this question emotionally and morally; they are usually immune to statistics-based arguments from either camp.

So for those of you scoring at home, that’s +1 for Prof. Mocan — he gets his little attention-boost like a good news-seeking lawyer/researcher. ‘Law and Economics’ reviewers get a -1 for demanding all results be fashionable. But overall, capital punishment in the US still gets a really really low score.

-AI

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