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Estimating the Impact of the Death Penalty on Murder

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  • John J. Donohue
  • Justin Wolfers

Abstract

This paper reviews the econometric issues in efforts to estimate the impact of the death penalty on murder, focusing on six recent studies published since 2003. We highlight the large number of choices that must be made when specifying the various panel data models that have been used to address this question. There is little clarity about the knowledge potential murderers have concerning the risk of execution: are they influenced by the passage of a death penalty statute, the number of executions in a state, the proportion of murders in a state that leads to an execution, and details about the limited types of murders that are potentially susceptible to a sentence of death? If an execution rate is a viable proxy, should it be calculated using the ratio of last year's executions to last year's murders, last year's executions to the murders a number of years earlier, or some other values? We illustrate how sensitive various estimates are to these choices. Importantly, the most up-to-date OLS panel data studies generate no evidence of a deterrent effect, while three 2SLS studies purport to find such evidence. The 2SLS studies, none of which shows results that are robust to clustering their standard errors, are unconvincing because they all use a problematic structure based on poorly measured and theoretically inappropriate pseudo-probabilities that are designed to capture the key deterrence elements of a state's death penalty regime, and because their instruments are of dubious validity. We also discuss the appropriateness of the implicit assumption of the 2SLS studies that OLS estimates of the impact of the death penalty would be biased against a finding of deterrence. Copyright 2009, Oxford University Press.

Suggested Citation

  • John J. Donohue & Justin Wolfers, 2009. "Estimating the Impact of the Death Penalty on Murder," American Law and Economics Review, Oxford University Press, vol. 11(2), pages 249-309.
  • Handle: RePEc:oup:amlawe:v:11:y:2009:i:2:p:249-309
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    File URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10.1093/aler/ahp024
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    Cited by:

    1. Abhay Aneja & John J. Donohue III & Alexandria Zhang, 2012. "The Impact of Right to Carry Laws and the NRC Report: The Latest Lessons for the Empirical Evaluation of Law and Policy," NBER Working Papers 18294, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Gebhard Kirchgässner, 2011. "Econometric Estimates of Deterrence of the Death Penalty: Facts or Ideology?," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 64(3), pages 448-478, August.
    3. Antony W. Dnes & Nuno Garoupa, 2010. "Behavior, Human Capital and the Formation of Gangs," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 63(4), pages 517-529, November.
    4. Cheng Cheng & Mark Hoekstra, 2013. "Does Strengthening Self-Defense Law Deter Crime or Escalate Violence?:Evidence from Expansions to Castle Doctrine," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 48(3), pages 821-854.
    5. repec:eee:jeborg:v:143:y:2017:i:c:p:9-27 is not listed on IDEAS

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