The death penalty seems to be a controversial issue for most people. Supporters claim that it eliminates repeat offenders, deters potential murderers, and is the ultimate retribution. Opponents denounce it as murder, say that it does not cause deterrence but rather promotes violence, and claim that it introduces the chance of an innocent person being executed. Of all the arguments presented by both sides, one seems to be more compelling and crucial than the rest-deterrence. Will the use of the death penalty cause potential murderers to be less likely to commit murder Deterrence may sound like a dull word, but think of the implications. If the death penalty really causes deterrence, then using it decreases the number of murders and saves lives.
If the death penalty saves lives, then we should use it more often to protect innocent victims. Why wait, why complain about the violence of it, if our friends, neighbors, parents, and children can be saved by punishing those we know to be guilty. On the other hand, if the death penalty does not cause deterrence, if it does not save lives, then it may be of questionable value at all. As figure 1 points out, deterrence is a big factor in public support for capital punishment. This essay undertakes the question of whether or not the death penalty causes deterrence. It looks at the history of the death penalty in the United States, analyzes other studies about the death penalty and deterrence, and uses a simple empirical approach to test whether or not the death penalty deters.
Capital punishment has been used since ancient times to punish a variety of offenses. From the beginnings of the United States, it was the mandatory punishment for a number of crimes. However, as time went on the death penalty faced a number challenges. A small minority began to question whether the death penalty was right. Although most Americans still supported it, sometimes these people would end up on juri e for capital cases, and as a result, people began to notice that juries were less likely to convict when the death penalty was the automatic punishment. This development lead to a weakening and changing of death penalty laws.
States allowed the jury to choose the punishment, and some states abolished capital punishment altogether. (See figure 2 for a brief history of the death penalty). In 1967, the death penalty was suspended in order for the federal appellate courts to decide on its constitutionality. In 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in the way that it was being implemented.
The Supreme Court ruled that states were applying the death penalty arbitrarily and irregularly. In one fell swoop, every death penalty law was rejected as unconstitutional. In 1976, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court decided that the death penalty was not unconstitutional per se but states had to implement it fairly. However, the court made it difficult for states to re implement the death penalty. In Woodson v.
North Carolina, the court ruled that a mandatory death penalty for first degree murder was not a uniform standard. In 1976 and the years that followed states began to re institute the death penalty.