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Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate

  • Donohue III, John J.

    ()

    (Yale University)

  • Wolfers, Justin

    ()

    (University of Michigan)

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 analyze 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.

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Paper provided by Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in its series IZA Discussion Papers with number 1949.

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Length: 53 pages
Date of creation: Jan 2006
Date of revision:
Publication status: published in: Stanford Law Review, 2005, 58(3), 791-845
Handle: RePEc:iza:izadps:dp1949
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  1. Card, David & Krueger, Alan B, 1994. "Minimum Wages and Employment: A Case Study of the Fast-Food Industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(4), pages 772-93, September.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Hausman, Jerry, 2015. "Specification tests in econometrics," Applied Econometrics, Publishing House "SINERGIA PRESS", vol. 38(2), pages 112-134.
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  6. Moulton, Brent R, 1990. "An Illustration of a Pitfall in Estimating the Effects of Aggregate Variables on Micro Unit," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 72(2), pages 334-38, May.
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  8. Hashem Dezhbakhsh & Paul H. Rubin & Joanna M. Shepherd, 2001. "Does Capital Punishment Have a Deterrent Effect? New Evidence from Post-moratorium Panel Data," Emory Economics 0101, Department of Economics, Emory University (Atlanta).
  9. Mocan, H Naci & Gittings, R Kaj, 2003. "Getting Off Death Row: Commuted Sentences and the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 46(2), pages 453-78, October.
  10. 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.
  11. Shepherd, Joanna M, 2002. "Fear of the First Strike: The Full Deterrent Effect of California's Two- and Three-Strikes Legislation," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 31(1), pages 159-201, January.
  12. Kennedy, P., 1993. "Randomization Tests in Econometrics," Discussion Papers dp93-08, Department of Economics, Simon Fraser University.
  13. Ian Ayres & John J. Donohue III, 2002. "Shooting Down the More Guns, Less Crime Hypothesis," NBER Working Papers 9336, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  14. Helland Eric & Tabarrok Alexander, 2004. "Using Placebo Laws to Test "More Guns, Less Crime"," The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 4(1), pages 1-9, January.
  15. Hashem Dezhbakhsh & Joanna M. Shepherd, 2003. "The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Evidence from a "Judicial Experiment"," Emory Economics 0314, Department of Economics, Emory University (Atlanta).
  16. Dale Cloninger & Roberto Marchesini, 2001. "Execution and deterrence: a quasi-controlled group experiment," Applied Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 33(5), pages 569-576.
  17. Lawrence Katz & Steven D. Levitt & Ellen Shustorovich, 2003. "Prison Conditions, Capital Punishment, and Deterrence," American Law and Economics Review, Oxford University Press, vol. 5(2), pages 318-343, August.
  18. Rubin, Paul H. & Dezhbakhsh, Hashem, 2003. "The effect of concealed handgun laws on crime: beyond the dummy variables," International Review of Law and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 23(2), pages 199-216, June.
  19. Dale Cloninger & Roberto Marchesini, 2006. "Execution moratoriums, commutations and deterrence: the case of Illinois," Applied Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 38(9), pages 967-973.
  20. Joanna M. Shepherd, 2004. "Murders of Passion, Execution Delays, and the Deterrence of Capital Punishment," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 33(2), pages 283-321, 06.
  21. 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.
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