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Deterrence and the Death Penalty: Partial Identification Analysis Using Repeated Cross Sections


  • Charles F. Manski
  • John V. Pepper


Researchers have long used repeated cross sectional observations of homicide rates and sanctions to examine the deterrent effect of the adoption and implementation of death penalty statutes. The empirical literature, however, has failed to achieve consensus. A fundamental problem is that the outcomes of counterfactual policies are not observable. Hence, the data alone cannot identify the deterrent effect of capital punishment. How then should research proceed? It is tempting to impose assumptions strong enough to yield a definitive finding, but strong assumptions may be inaccurate and yield flawed conclusions. Instead, we study the identifying power of relatively weak assumptions restricting variation in treatment response across places and time. The results are findings of partial identification that bound the deterrent effect of capital punishment. By successively adding stronger identifying assumptions, we seek to make transparent how assumptions shape inference. We perform empirical analysis using state-level data in the United States in 1975 and 1977. Under the weakest restrictions, there is substantial ambiguity: we cannot rule out the possibility that having a death penalty statute substantially increases or decreases homicide. This ambiguity is reduced when we impose stronger assumptions, but inferences are sensitive to the maintained restrictions. Combining the data with some assumptions implies that the death penalty increases homicide, but other assumptions imply that the death penalty deters it.

Suggested Citation

  • 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.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17455
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Richard Blundell & Amanda Gosling & Hidehiko Ichimura & Costas Meghir, 2007. "Changes in the Distribution of Male and Female Wages Accounting for Employment Composition Using Bounds," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 75(2), pages 323-363, March.
    2. Gundersen, Craig & Kreider, Brent & Pepper, John, 2012. "The impact of the National School Lunch Program on child health: A nonparametric bounds analysis," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 166(1), pages 79-91.
    3. Hashem Dezhbakhsh & Paul H. Rubin & Joanna M. Shepherd, 2003. "Does Capital Punishment Have a Deterrent Effect? New Evidence from Postmoratorium Panel Data," American Law and Economics Review, Oxford University Press, vol. 5(2), pages 344-376, August.
    4. 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.
    5. Victor Chernozhukov & Han Hong & Elie Tamer, 2007. "Estimation and Confidence Regions for Parameter Sets in Econometric Models," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 75(5), pages 1243-1284, September.
    6. Charles F. Manski & John V. Pepper, 2000. "Monotone Instrumental Variables, with an Application to the Returns to Schooling," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 68(4), pages 997-1012, July.
    7. John V. Pepper, 2000. "The Intergenerational Transmission Of Welfare Receipt: A Nonparametric Bounds Analysis," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 82(3), pages 472-488, August.
    8. Hashem Dezhbakhsh & Joanna M. Shepherd, 2006. "The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Evidence from a "Judicial Experiment"," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 44(3), pages 512-535, July.
    9. Ehrlich, Isaac, 1977. "The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Reply," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 67(3), pages 452-458, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. 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.
    2. 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).
    3. Daniel Millimet & Manan Roy, 2015. "Partial identification of the long-run causal effect of food security on child health," Empirical Economics, Springer, vol. 48(1), pages 83-141, February.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • C21 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Single Equation Models; Single Variables - - - Cross-Sectional Models; Spatial Models; Treatment Effect Models
    • K14 - Law and Economics - - Basic Areas of Law - - - Criminal Law

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