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Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate

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  • Donohue, John J
  • Wolfers, Justin

Abstract

Does the death penalty save lives? A surge of recent interest in this question has yielded a series of papers purporting to show robust and precise estimates of a substantial deterrent effect of capital punishment. We assess the various approaches that have been used in this literature, testing the robustness of these inferences. Specifically, we start by assessing the time series evidence, comparing the history of executions and homicides in the United States and Canada, and within the United States, between executing and non-executing states. We analyse the effects of the judicial experiments provided by the Furman and Gregg decisions and assess the relationship between execution and homicide rates in state panel data since 1934. We then revisit the existing instrumental variables approaches and assess two recent state-specific execution moratoria. In each case we find that previous inferences of large deterrent effects based upon specific samples, functional forms, control variables, comparison groups, or IV strategies are extremely fragile and even small changes in specifications yield dramatically different results. The fundamental difficulty is that the death penalty - at least as it has been implemented in the United States - is applied so rarely that the number of homicides that it can plausibly have caused or deterred cannot be reliably disentangled from the large year-to-year changes in the homicide rate caused by other factors. As such, short samples and particular specifications may yield large but spurious correlations. We conclude that existing estimates appear to reflect a small and unrepresentative sample of the estimates that arise from alternative approaches. Sampling from the broader universe of plausible approaches suggests not just 'reasonable doubt' about whether there is any deterrent effect of the death penalty, but profound uncertainty - even about its sign.

Suggested Citation

  • Donohue, John J & Wolfers, Justin, 2006. "Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate," CEPR Discussion Papers 5493, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  • Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:5493
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    Cited by:

    1. Joshua D. Angrist & Jörn-Steffen Pischke, 2010. "The Credibility Revolution in Empirical Economics: How Better Research Design Is Taking the Con out of Econometrics," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 24(2), pages 3-30, Spring.
    2. Matthew J. Baker & Niklas J. Westelius, 2013. "Crime, expectations, and the deterrence hypothesis," Chapters,in: Research Handbook on Economic Models of Law, chapter 12, pages 235-280 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    3. Bindler, Anna & Hjalmarsson, Randi, 2016. "The Fall of Capital Punishment and the Rise of Prisons: How Punishment Severity Affects Jury Verdicts," Working Papers in Economics 674, University of Gothenburg, Department of Economics.
    4. Julio Cáceres-Delpiano & Eugenio Giolito, 2012. "The Impact of Unilateral Divorce on Crime," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 30(1), pages 215-248.
    5. Ligthart, J.E. & Rider, M. & Wang, R., 2013. "Does the Fiscal Decentralization Promote Public Safety? Evidence from United States," Discussion Paper 2013-021, Tilburg University, Center for Economic Research.
    6. Steven N. Durlauf & Chao Fu & Salvador Navarro, 2011. "Capital Punishment and Deterrence: Understanding Disparate Results," Working Papers 2012-005, Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Working Group.
    7. Gebhard Kirchgässner, 2011. "Econometric Estimates of Deterrence of the Death Penalty: Facts or Ideology?," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 64(3), pages 448-478, August.
    8. Berit C. Gerritzen & Gebhard Kirchgässner, 2013. "Facts or Ideology: What Determines the Results of Econometric Estimates of the Deterrence Effect of Death Penalty? A Meta-Analysis," CESifo Working Paper Series 4159, CESifo Group Munich.
    9. Berit C. Gerritzen & Gebhard Kirchgässner, 2013. "Facts or Ideology: What Determines the Results of Econometric Estimates of the Deterrence Effect of Death Penalty?," CREMA Working Paper Series 2013-04, Center for Research in Economics, Management and the Arts (CREMA).
    10. Ethan Cohen-Cole & Steven Durlauf & Jeffrey Fagan & Daniel Nagin, 2008. "Model Uncertainty and the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment," American Law and Economics Review, Oxford University Press, vol. 11(2), pages 335-369.
    11. Hashem Dezhbakhsh & Paul Rubin, 2011. "From the 'econometrics of capital punishment' to the 'capital punishment' of econometrics: on the use and abuse of sensitivity analysis," Applied Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 43(25), pages 3655-3670.
    12. Angela K. Dills & Jeffrey A. Miron & Garrett Summers, 2010. "What Do Economists Know about Crime?," NBER Chapters,in: The Economics of Crime: Lessons for and from Latin America, pages 269-302 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    13. Alberto Alesina & Eliana La Ferrara, 2014. "A Test of Racial Bias in Capital Sentencing," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 104(11), pages 3397-3433, November.
    14. Víctor Gerardo Carreón Rodríguez & Jorge L. García-Menéndez, 2013. "Economic Analysis of Theft Reporting: the Case of Mexico City," Working papers DTE 568, CIDE, División de Economía.
    15. Mears, Daniel P., 2007. "Towards rational and evidence-based crime policy," Journal of Criminal Justice, Elsevier, vol. 35(6), pages 667-682, December.
    16. Joseph A. Clougherty & Jo Seldeslachts, 2013. "The Deterrence Effects of US Merger Policy Instruments," Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, Oxford University Press, vol. 29(5), pages 1114-1144, October.
    17. Richard T. Boylan & Naci H. Mocan, 2009. "Intended and Unintended Consequences of Prison Reform," NBER Working Papers 15535, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    18. Michael Frakes & Matthew Harding, 2009. "The Deterrent Effect of Expansions in Death Penalty Eligibility Criteria," Discussion Papers 08-033, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
    19. Charles F. Manski & John V. Pepper, 2011. "Deterrence and the Death Penalty: Partial Identification Analysis Using Repeated Cross Sections," NBER Working Papers 17455, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    20. Travaglini, Guido, 2010. "Supervised Principal Components and Factor Instrumental Variables. An Application to Violent CrimeTrends in the US, 1982-2005," MPRA Paper 22077, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    21. Task Force Members Include: Lilli Japec & Frauke Kreuter & Marcus Berg & Paul Biemer & Paul Decker & Cliff Lampe & Julia Lane & Cathy O'Neil & Abe Usher, 2015. "AAPOR Report on Big Data," Mathematica Policy Research Reports 4eb9b798fd5b42a8b53a9249c, Mathematica Policy Research.
    22. Enrique Moral-Benito, 2015. "Model Averaging In Economics: An Overview," Journal of Economic Surveys, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 29(1), pages 46-75, February.
    23. Todd D. Kendall & Robert Tamura, 2010. "Unmarried Fertility, Crime, and Social Stigma," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 53(1), pages 185-221, February.
    24. Entorf, Horst, 2012. "Certainty and Severity of Sanctions in Classical and Behavioral Models of Deterrence: A Survey," IZA Discussion Papers 6516, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
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    Keywords

    capital punishment; crime; death penalty; deterrence; execution; homicide; murder;

    JEL classification:

    • K14 - Law and Economics - - Basic Areas of Law - - - Criminal Law
    • K42 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior - - - Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law

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