Deterrence and Law Enforcement

 “We would prefer, as Connecticut Chiefs, that the Legislature have the strength, the fortitude to repeal the death penalty. Connecticut would be a safer place if we took the resources that we spend on futile attempts to execute killers and apply them to protecting the innocent and jailing the guilty.”

– West Hartford Police Chief James Strillacci

 Does the death penalty deter crime? This question always has been central to debates on the death penalty. And despite the claims of a vocal few, there continues to be no evidence that the death penalty has a greater deterrent effect than the alternative of life in prison without release. In fact, the death penalty wastes millions of dollars that could go toward programs that actually reduce crime. Unsurprisingly, more members of law enforcement are questioning the death penalty’s effectiveness.

Data Show the Death Penalty does not Lower Murder Rates

  • A simple comparison reveals that states without the death penalty actually have lower murder rates than those with the death penalty. The murder rate in states with the death penalty is 5.2 per 100,000 people. The murder rate drops to 3.3 per 100,000 people in states without the death penalty.1
  • The majority of studies find that the death penalty has no deterrent effect over and above the alternative sentence of life in prison without release. The studies that do find a deterrent effect have not stood up to peer review, and suffer from faulty measurement, missing data, failure to account for key variables, or other statistical flaws.2
  • In response to some deterrence studies, Professors John Donohue and Justin Wolfers write: “The view that the death penalty deters is still the product of belief, not evidence…. The data are simply too noisy, and the conclusions from any study too fragile. On balance, the evidence suggests that the death penalty may increase the murder rate…. In light of this evidence, is it wise to spend millions on a process with no demonstrated value that creates at least some risk of executing innocents when other proven crime-fighting measures exist?”3
  • The experience of individual states confirms the data. The murder rate in Manhattan dropped steadily for ten years even though the District Attorney there opposed the death penalty and refused to seek it. And Chicago’s murder rate dropped by nearly a third during the first seven years the state suspended executions.

Deterrence is a Myth, and People Know it

  • A 2009 study found that 88% of the nation’s top criminologists believe the death penalty is not a deterrent.4 This is not surprising: to the extent that someone with a deadly weapon in a rage is going to be deterred from anything, the real prospect of spending a lifetime in prison is at least as persuasive as the small chance of being executed.
  • Americans know that the death penalty does not deter crime. A 2006 Galluppoll showed that 64% of Americans believe the death penalty has no deterrent effect. This number has risen steadily since the 1980’s.5
  • Police chiefs do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent. Hart Research Polls from 1995 and 2009 found that police chiefs ranked the death penalty last among effective ways to reduce violent crime. A full 99% said that other measures such as reducing drug abuse or improving the economy were more important than expanding the death penalty in reducing violent crime.6


  1. Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), “Murder Rates Nationally and by State,” (data from 2008, the most recent available).
  2. John Donohue and Justin Wolfers, “The Death Penalty: No Evidence for Deterrence,” The Economists’ Voice, April 2006; Jeffrey Fagan, “Death and Deterrence Redux: Science, Law and Causal Reasoning on Capital Punishment,” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 4 (2006): 255-320.
  3. Donohue and Wolfers.
  4. Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock, “Do Executions Lower Murder Rates?: The Views of Leading Criminologists,” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 99 (2009): 489-508.
  5. Gallup Polling.
  6. DPIC, “Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis,” October 20, 2009.