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The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Evidence from a "Judicial Experiment"

  • Hashem Dezhbakhsh
  • Joanna M. Shepherd

Does capital punishment deter capital crimes? We use panel data covering the fifty states duringthe period 1960-2000 period to examine the issue. Our study is novel in four ways. First, we estimate the moratorium's full effect by using both pre- and postmoratorium evidence. Second, we exploit the moratorium as a judicial experiment to measure criminals' responsiveness to the severity of punishment; we compare murder rates immediately before and after changes in states' death penalty laws. The inference draws on the variations in the timing and duration of the moratorium across states provide a cross section of murder rate changes occurring in various time periods. Third, we supplement the before-and-after comparisons with regression analysis that disentangles the impact of the moratorium itself on murder from the effect on murder of actual executions. By using two different approaches, we avoid many of the modeling criticisms of earlier studies. Fourth, in addition to estimating 84 distinct regression models - with variations in regressors, estimation method, and functional form - our robustness checks examine the moratorium's impact on crimes that are not punishable by death. Our results indicate that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, and the moratorium and executions deter murders in distinct ways. This evidence is corroborated by both the before-and-after comparisons and regression analysis. We also confirm that the moratorium and executions do not cause similar changes in non-capital crimes. The results are highly robust.

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Paper provided by Department of Economics, Emory University (Atlanta) in its series Emory Economics with number 0314.

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Date of creation: Aug 2003
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Handle: RePEc:emo:wp2003:0314
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  1. McManus, Walter S, 1985. "Estimates of the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: The Importance of the Researcher's Prior Beliefs," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 93(2), pages 417-25, April.
  2. Hoenack, Stephen A & Weiler, William C, 1980. "A Structural Model of Murder Behavior and the Criminal Justice System," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 70(3), pages 327-41, June.
  3. Leamer, Edward E, 1983. "Let's Take the Con Out of Econometrics," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 73(1), pages 31-43, March.
  4. Cameron, Samuel, 1994. "A review of the econometric evidence on the effects of capital punishment," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 23(1-2), pages 197-214.
  5. Dale Cloninger & Roberto Marchesini, 2001. "Execution and deterrence: a quasi-controlled group experiment," Applied Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 33(5), pages 569-576.
  6. John J. Donohue & Steven D. Levitt, 2001. "The Impact Of Legalized Abortion On Crime," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 116(2), pages 379-420, May.
  7. H. Naci Mocan & R. Kaj Gittings, 2001. "Pardons, Executions and Homicide," NBER Working Papers 8639, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  8. Yunker, James A., 1976. "Is the death penalty a deterrent to homicide? Some time series evidence," Journal of Behavioral Economics, Elsevier, vol. 5(1), pages 45-81.
  9. Lott, John R, Jr & Mustard, David B, 1997. "Crime, Deterrence, and Right-to-Carry Concealed Handguns," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 26(1), pages 1-68, January.
  10. Isaac Ehrlich, 1973. "The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: A Question of Life and Death," NBER Working Papers 0018, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Passell, Peter & Taylor, John B, 1977. "The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Another View," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 67(3), pages 445-51, June.
  12. Christopher J. Ruhm, 2000. "Are Recessions Good For Your Health?," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 115(2), pages 617-650, May.
  13. McAleer, Michael & Veall, Michael R, 1989. "How Fragile Are Fragile Inferences? A Re-evaluation of the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 71(1), pages 99-106, February.
  14. Shepherd, Joanna M, 2002. "Police, Prosecutors, Criminals, and Determinate Sentencing: The Truth about Truth-in-Sentencing Laws," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 45(2), pages 509-34, October.
  15. Chressanthis, George A., 1989. "Capital punishment and the deterrent effect revisited: Recent time-series econometric evidence," Journal of Behavioral Economics, Elsevier, vol. 18(2), pages 81-97.
  16. Ehrlich, Isaac, 1977. "Capital Punishment and Deterrence: Some Further Thoughts and Additional Evidence," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 85(4), pages 741-88, August.
  17. Brumm, Harold J. & Cloninger, Dale O., 1996. "Perceived risk of punishment and the commission of homicides: A covariance structure analysis," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 31(1), pages 1-11, October.
  18. Paul R. Zimmerman, 2004. "State executions, deterrence, and the incidence of murder," Journal of Applied Economics, Universidad del CEMA, vol. 0, pages 163-193, May.
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