Sunday, November 18, 2007

Murders Afraid of Capital Punishment?

As if there wasn't enough to debate, Adam Liptak from the New York Times reports that "for the first time in a generation, the question of whether the death penalty deters murders has captured the attention of scholars in law and economics, setting off an intense new debate about one of the central justifications for capital punishment" (November 18, 2007). More than a dozen studies were conducted in a number of jurisdictions, comparing the homicide rates over a period of time. On the surface it appears that when execution rates rise, homicide rates lower. This seems to make complete sense; people have the idea of execution as a punishment fresh in their minds and therefore are in greater fear of consequences. Lawyers and economists, however, seem to disagree on the issue, not necessarily that people respond to incentives, but on the analyzation of the research.

The economists' view is based on the logic of incentives. Liptak explains the economists' point of view as such: "To many economists, then, it follows inexorably that there will be fewer murders as the likelihood of execution rises." Because the numbers in the research do reveal that homicide rates dropped when execution rates rose, the economists' stand by their point. But the lawyers' point of view is that there are too many other factors that have not been equated into analyzing the research done in jurisdictions where capital punishment applies. These factors give the lawyers reason to not believe that capital punishment deters people from homicide.

Regardless of where a lawyer or economist stands on the issue of research, what is most surprising is the lack of reliance on personal values and morals in deciding whether or not the death penalty should be used. Instead of worrying about what they believe to be the best moral actions, the economists and lawyers researching and debating this issue are basing their stances on what the research is revealing. Joanna M. Shepherd, a professor at Emory with a doctorate in economics states, “I am definitely against the death penalty on lots of different grounds, but I do believe that people respond to incentives.”

The debate between all kinds of people--lawyers, economists, students, parents, everyone--should not be "what does the research show," but rather "what does my faith/soul/values tell me is right". While this does lead to a difference in opinion, the majority opinion will rule and people can choose to accept it or leave it. American laws cannot decide the right actions to take simply because of research; cutting off a man's hand because he stole would obviously make other afraid to steal, but America does not practice this kind of punishment because it was decided to be immoral. Of course, capital punishment deters people from murdering others, but that does not mean it is right.

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