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The Deterrent Effect of Expansions in Death Penalty Eligibility Criteria

  • Michael Frakes
  • Matthew Harding


    (Stanford University)

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    Homicides must possess certain characteristics before they become eligible for capital punishment. Over the last several decades, virtually every state has added to its list of possible eligibility criteria. We draw on this variation to identify deterrent effects of the eligibility expansions. Eligibility expansions may deter future homicides through two channels: (1) by paving the way for more death sentences and executions and (2) by providing prosecutors with greater leverage to secure enhanced sentences (capital or non-capital). The latter channel is likely to be triggered on a fairly common basis. We estimate that the adoption of a law making child murders specifically eligible for capital punishment is associated with an approximately 19% reduction in the rate of homicides of youth victims. We estimate deterrence findings of similar magnitude when we turn to the estimation of an empirical specification that draws on variations in the full set of eligibility criteria and that parameterizes general eligibility statutes using a simulated measure of the propensity of each state to extend capital eligibility to a given murder. However, the findings of this general deterrence investigation are relatively noisy and are not robust to the exclusion of the child-murder factor from the simulation analysis.

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    Paper provided by Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research in its series Discussion Papers with number 08-033.

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    Date of creation: May 2009
    Date of revision:
    Handle: RePEc:sip:dpaper:08-033
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    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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).
    4. Ehrlich, Isaac, 1975. "The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: A Question of Life and Death," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 65(3), pages 397-417, June.
    5. Jonathan Gruber & Daniel M. Hungerman, 2008. "The Church versus the Mall: What Happens When Religion Faces Increased Secular Competition?," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 123(2), pages 831-862, 05.
    6. Randi Hjalmarsson, 2008. "Does Capital Punishment have a "Local" Deterrent Effect on Homicides?," American Law and Economics Review, Oxford University Press, vol. 11(2), pages 310-334.
    7. Marianne Bertrand & Esther Duflo & Sendhil Mullainathan, 2002. "How Much Should We Trust Differences-in-Differences Estimates?," NBER Working Papers 8841, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    8. Timothy G. Conley & Christopher R. Taber, 2011. "Inference with "Difference in Differences" with a Small Number of Policy Changes," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 93(1), pages 113-125, February.
    9. 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.
    10. 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.
    11. 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.
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