Type: Research
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Capital punishment, also referred to as death penalty, has been a subject of controversy since its introduction into the justice systems in early 19th century in the United States of America. Millions of people have raised arguments proposing the use of capital punishment in reducing crimes in the society. Similarly, millions of others have also raised their arguments against the use of capital punishment in deterring crimes. Moreover, West (2005) asserts that several problems and criticisms have as well risen in relation to administration of capital punishments.

People who oppose death penalty argue that capital punishment has led to irreversible loss of numerous lives, which is an injustice to humankind by itself. Thus, opponents of capital punishment argue that life imprisonment is an effective substitute for capital punishment because it does not violate the right to life of the criminal. On the other hand, proponents of capital punishment believe that death penalty is justified for criminals who perform serious crimes such as murder. John West, who has being a strong proponent of capital punishment for more than two decades, argues that life imprisonment is not an equally effective deterrent for murder crimes, because it does not affirm the right to life by allowing those who kill others to continue living even after violating the rights to life of the people they kill (West, 2005). Such arguments have always raised questions as to whether or not capital punishment is effective in reducing crime rates within the United States. In attempts to find the answers to this question, I will conduct a research study that would analyze and take into deep consideration the ability of capital punishment to reduce crimes. This research study attempts to find out the various reasons for and against the use of capital punishment in administration of justice in the United States. It also investigates whether or not the use of capital punishment is an effective way of deterring crimes within the American society as claimed by a previous research study conducted by Bedau and Cassell (2009).


Rantoul, Bowers and Pierce (2006) define capital punishment as the imposition of death for certain crimes performed by offenders, usually considered as capital crimes. In most states in the U.S., most crimes are punished through imprisonment for a given period of time. However, serious crimes that are considered capital are usually punished through execution of the criminal.

The administration of death penalty has become a contentious issue in most communities in the U.S. According to Winters (2010), millions of people who have diverse cultural beliefs and religious backgrounds have questioned the execution of criminals. Thousands of prominent scholars, lawyers, religious leaders and the society as a whole have been arguing about the effectiveness of death penalty in deterring crimes within our communities. In the recent past, high-profile cases have provided numerous opportunities for strong debates between proponents and opponents of death penalty. For instance, the conviction and execution of Timothy McVeigh as a result of his involvement in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1993 which resulted into deaths of more than one hundred and sixty people (Glasthal & Khan, 2001).

In addition, many Americans who are concerned about their private lives and that of their families and the intolerable effects of crimes within their neighborhoods have advocated for communal acceptance of death penalty as a form of punishment that would deter crimes. Proponents of death penalty have also been urging politicians and government officials to support and favor capital punishment. This has led to fierce debates emerging within the society both in public and private settings. Various questions such as whether capital punishment should be allowed under the American Constitution, the morality of capital punishment and the ability of capital punishment to reduce crime have been raised (Bedau & Cassell, 2009).

According to Karsdedt (2007), acceptability of capital punishment is one of the most contentious issues in the modern world. Despite strong opposition, death penalty is still exercised in many nations across the globe, and U.S. has been accused of being the leading administrator of capital punishment within its justice systems. According to Harper and McLanahan (2008), most communities in North America embrace capital punishment as the most suitable punishment for capital crimes. In contrast, most religious groups in the U.S., especially Christians, have criticized death penalty as an inhuman, cruel and uncivilized act that is against the will of God in relation to the gift of life. These contrasts in views and opinions in relation to death penalties have formed good grounds for this research that seeks to determine the capacity of capital punishment to deter crimes in the U.S.

Literature Review

The need for and effectiveness of capital punishment in dissuading and discouraging crimes has been subjected to thousands of debates in various countries across the globe, and many research studies have been carried out to determine the overall impact of capital punishment on recurrences of crime within our societies. However, there are no conclusive evidences that are convincing enough to establish that death penalty actually deters crimes. Thousands of leaders with different religious, political and societal backgrounds have not been able to reach any agreement on this distressing and worrying issue.

Many research studies have been carried as well as masses of data that try to link death penalty and decrease in crime rates in the United States. For example, in January 1995, Peter D. Hart Research Associates conducted a survey on the effectiveness of death penalty as a deterrent to crime by interviewing police officers from various states across America. During the survey, police officers were asked to express their views on the topic. Based on the responses that were received, the researchers concluded that police officers rank capital punishment as the least deterrent of criminal acts.

According to data collected by the federal government between 1930 and 1968, three thousand eight hundred and ninety five people were executed in the United States under civil authority. Statistical analysis of these data depicts a consistent increase in number of executions throughout the years. Accordingly, the increase in number of people executed implied an increase in rate of serious crimes being committed. Thus, capital punishment did not discourage the offenders from committing capital crimes. However, the number of executions consistently declined from one hundred and five in 1951 to two in 1967 (Bakken, 2010). This decrease was attributed to increased legal challenges to the death penalty. Moreover, between 1968 and 1976, there were no executions carried out (Bakken, 2010). According to Rantoul, Bowers and Pierce (2006), these legal challenges ended in 1972 when the Supreme Court, in the case of Furman v. Georgia, ruled that death penalty is unconstitutional. This led to the banning of capital punishment in all states in America.

A few years later, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed its ruling and stated that capital punishment does not violate the Constitution. Consequently, the number of executions in the subsequent years greatly increased from six in 1978 to three hundred and fifty in 1980. Gary Gilmore was the first person to be executed after he was convicted of murder in 1977, just a few months after the reversal of the ruling by the Supreme Court (Bakken, 2010).

Research Hypothesis/Problem Statement and Purpose

This research investigates whether or not capital punishment deters crimes in the United States of America. Although various research studies have linked capital punishment to reduction in crime rates in the U.S., there is no direct relationship that has been established between cause-and-effect of capital punishment and rate of crimes. In that regard, this research will determine whether or not such a relationship exists.

The purpose of this research will be to determine whether capital punishment deters crimes in the U.S. The research also involves a detailed analysis of previous research findings that have attempted to link changes in rates of crime with capital punishment. The major question for which answers are being sought for in this research study is: Does capital punishment deter crime in the U.S.? Thus, the null hypothesis for the research is to prove that capital punishment does not deter crime in the United States.

Capital Punishment in Modern America

According to Karstedt (2007), by 1997, more than three thousand seven hundred people were on death row in various states spread across America. Most of these prisoners were convicted of murder cases.Today, as West (2005) asserts, the United States of America is the only western democracy that allows death penalty. Moreover, the sentence of death penalty has gained widespread popularity and political support in most states in the U.S.

In 1997, a poll by the New Political Science Journal revealed that seventy-four percent of political leaders surveyed in North America said that they favor capital punishment for persons convicted of serious crimes, especially murder (Edith, 1997). In my view, this high percent depicts the attitude of most political leaders towards death penalty. Edith (1997) also asserts that when the correspondents were asked whether they believe capital punishment may deter crimes, only forty-five percent confirmed their belief in ability of capital punishment to reduce crime. In my view, although most Americans may want murderers to be punished through execution, a majority of them do not support deterrence as the primary reason for administration of capital punishment.

The continued search for the relationship between capital punishment and rate of crimes has led to the formulation of two important theories by prominent researchers in the United States. These theories are the theory of deterrence formulated by Thomas Schelling and the theory of brutalization proposed by Robert Rantoul, William Bowers and Glenn Pierce.

Theory of Deterrence in Crime.

According to Thomas Schelling and Winters (2010), the theory of deterrence in control of criminal activities is based on the notion that the threat of a punishment should be severe enough to surpass and offset the benefits or pleasures that the criminal is likely receive from the act of crime. Moreover, the punishment should be administered in a manner that enables the criminal to clearly see the cause-and-effect relationship between the crime and the punishment. In my view, capital punishment perfectly serves this purpose, because the criminal will never kill again. However, it does not give the actual criminal a chance to clearly see the cause-and-effect relationship between his or her deeds and the punishment. Consequently, social scientists and experts have failed to determine whether capital punishment is the most effective deterrent in control of criminal activities.

Moreover, the theory of deterrence is only applicable to person with sound mind and conscious. Most people who commit violent crimes such as murder often lack this consciousness, and hence may not have legal deterrence as non-criminals. Renowned criminologists, psychologists and police chiefs have also agreed that murderers rarely think about the range of possible punishments such as capital punishments immediately before they commit crimes.

Another research study conducted by Thorsten Sellin used two approaches to determine the effectiveness of death penalty in deterring crimes. In the study, they compared homicide rates in states that administer capital punishments and those that do not administer capital punishments. In addition, the researchers also compared homicide rates before and after abolition of capital punishment in these countries. During the study, the researchers found out that homicide rates in countries that impose death penalty as a form of punishment did not vary significantly with homicide rates in countries that did not administer capital punishments.

Moreover, there was no significant increase or decrease in homicide rates after abolition of capital punishment in countries that administered it before. Similarly, reintroduction of capital punishment did not result into any significant decrease in the number of murder rates in countries that abolished it. In June 1972, Isaac Ehrlich and the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at the national homicide rates between 1930 and 1970 and concluded that execution of criminals did not result into any significant reduction in the number of serious crimes confirmed these results (Ehrlich & the National Bureau of Economic Research, 2004). Since then, many researchers have tried to prove these earlier finding wrong. However, their efforts have been in vain.

According to Edith (1997), it has proven extremely difficult to determine the relationship between execution of criminals and the rate of increase or decrease in capital crimes such as homicides. Criminologist Frank Zimring suggested that various factors such as socio-demographic factors, legal issues, personality differences and other variables are responsible for the changes in crime rates in the society. Although the opponents of death penalty believe that Ehrlich’s findings were correct, most proponents of capital punishment argue that Ehrlich’s results were not conclusive enough.

Proponents of capital punishment also argue that common sense is enough to prove that capital punishments is an effective deterrent for crimes. Proponents of death penalty have based their arguments on common sense by asserting that, generally, most people fear death than life imprisonment. Because death is more cruel and feared than life imprisonment, criminals would avoid those activities that may result into punishment by death. To support this argument, Prof, Ernest van den Haag of Fordham University observed that most criminals often seek to avoid execution by appealing so that their sentences may be reduced to life sentence (Perry, 2009). In this regard, criminals view execution as more severe than life imprisonment. Consequently, acts such as killings that may lead to execution are often avoided by criminals. The major drawback of Prof. Ernest’s conclusion is that he failed to provide statistical significance establishing the relation between execution and crime rates.

Proponents of death penalty also argues that execution of criminals, for example, serial killers would often save more lives than imprisoning them, because they may get their way out of prison back to the society and kill more people.

Brutalization Theory

Some opponents of capital punishments argue that death penalty has not succeeded in deterring crime, but instead increased homicide rates because the states, through execution of criminal, devalues human life. According to researchers Robert Rantoul, William Bowers and Glenn Pierce (2006), murder rates increased considerably few months after capital punishment was reintroduction by the Supreme Court in 1976 in the United States. Researchers Rantoul, Bowers and Pierce used brutality theory to explain this increase in crime rates. Brutality theory proposes that state-sanctioned executions brutalized the sensibilities and susceptibilities of the society, hence making potential murders less self-conscious.

In addition, opponents of capital punishment argue that because most murders are not planned criminals are less likely to be deterred by the thought of capital punishment. These opponents further argue that criminals who commit murder are often in impulsive emotional states and thus may not comprehensively think about the consequences of their actions, including possible death penalties. Psychologist Karstedt (2007) asserted that the emotional environment in which serious crimes take place do not offer a conducive environment for the criminal to thoughtfully weigh his options about the consequences of his or her act.

Personal Perspectives on the Available Literature. In my opinion, despite the availability of lots of literature on capital punishment and crime rates, very little is known in relation to the link between these two issues, hence there is urgent need to conduct more research studies that would prove that there is no direct relationship between rate of crimes and administration of capital punishment. For example, Bedau and Cassell (2009) asserts that the Republican Governor for New York, Mr. George E. Pataki, a strong proponent of death penalty asserted that for more than two decades, New York did not execute any criminal, hence most murderers went unpunished. Consequently, there was an increase in crime rates. However, he did not provide any reasonable statistical data to support his allegations.

Although social scientists have not been able to either conclusively support or disapprove the theory that capital punishment deters crime, the above discussion on capital punishment as a non-deterrent provides adequate grounds for believing that death capital has very little to do with deterrence of crimes.

Personal Perspectives on Capital Punishment 

In my view, various social factors such as increased availability of guns, hard economic times and increase in poverty levels are the major contributors of criminal offences. Therefore, in order to reduce crimes, these anti-social factors must be given adequate consideration and address. For example, the federal government may develop and implement more stringent rules on handling of personal guns, strategies for reducing drug abuse as well as create more employment opportunities for the youth and socio-economic support for the needy. Moreover, preventing a crime from being committed ultimately is more important than punishing criminals after they have shattered innocent lives. Therefore, it is important the government and other state agencies to determine the most appropriate ways of deterring crime other than executing offenders. In addition, execution of criminals often leads to destruction of sources of vital information which be used in providing security to the citizens in the U.S.

Furthermore, confusion often results from the unavoidable conflict between provision of justice and saving of lives. In some cases, innocent citizens have been executed without reasonable courses or offences. Execution also results into cruel brutality amongst other members of the society, thus leading to more murders. The death penalty thus hinders the fight against crime.

According to Winters (2010), proponents of capital punishment have been equating the loss of life of the criminal to that of the victim whom the offender killed innocently.  For this reason, these proponents argue that capital punishment is the only ultimate compensation that the victim’s family may receive. However, this assumption may not be true because capital punishment results into a double loss. Moreover, the extend of consolations that the family of the victim receives cannot be measured or weighed against the death of the offender. In addition, the loss of the offender through death does not benefit the victim in any way; hence, it cannot be the ultimate compensation.

Capital Punishment Is Not a Deterrent 

According to West (2005), even proponents of capital punishment have been forced to accept that execution of criminals in the past centuries have not proved that executions of criminals helps in reducing crime. He further asserts that most district attorneys in various states across America have accepted this fat in private, but fear saying so in publicly due to fear of political ramifications.

As I stated earlier, execution of criminals often leads to wastage of the scarce economic resources without necessarily conveying the message it is intended for to the potential criminals. For example, a research study carried out by three professors from Duke University in 1993 found out that execution of one single criminal in North Carolina cost the state over two million U.S.. dollars more than it would have cost to imprison that criminal for life. In New York, the research found that execution of criminals would cost the state one hundred and eighteen million U.S. dollars every year (Karstedt, 2007).

In 2009, George Perry and the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justicecarried out a research study that revealed that more than three and fifty innocent people were wrongly convicted and executed in Canada in 1987. Various research studies have also indicated, with support of adequate statistical data, that death penalties have the most brutalizing and dehumanizing effects in the society, hence resulting into more killings and other capital crimes. In my view, this is because members of the community consider life less valuable just as the state does when it executes. According to Rohrlich (2007), whenever the state executes, members of the society receive a different message other than deterrence from criminal acts. Thus, executions by the states are viewed as an endorsement and tolerance by the state in relation to killings. Capital punishment has also been cited as a major factor causing most rebellions against the states, hence creating social disharmony and imbalance.

Moreover, a national poll that interviewed groups of randomly selected police officers revealed that death penalty is not an effective tool for law enforcement. Although they supported it theoretically, most of the officers failed to propose death penalty for practical law enforcement purposes. In addition to citing death penalty as the most expensive punishment, the police officers also pointed out that it is the least effective in deterring murderers from committing homicides. Instead, the officers proposed various methods such as reducing drug abuse, improving the economy, gun control and community policing as the most effective ways of discouraging crimes in the society. The results of the polls are represented in the figures below.

Although capital punishment may be used to deter potential criminals from committing crimes, certain underlying factors such as excessive drug abuse and high levels of poverty may largely motivate an individual to commit crimes. For example, a jobless youth may be forced to rob a bank so that he can be able to meet his basic needs such as food and shelter. In this regards, solving such underlying issues like extreme poverty may help in reducing crime rates in the U.S.

Lastly, here is no solid evidence that shows that application of death penalty has positive effects on reducing crime. It is therefore important that more detailed researches should be carried out to establish that death penalty has little or no effect deterrence of crime.

In my view, I would conclude that most people usually support or oppose capital punishment for complex reasons that are often based on emotional. For example, proponents of death penalty often cite public safety as their major concern. On the other hand, opponents would allude to inequality in sentencing and administration of justice. To the proponents, capital punishment is moral while to opponents, capital punishment is immoral and should be condemned. Whether moral or immoral, the main debate should continue to revolve around whether capital punishment deter or do not deter criminal acts.

From my part, death penalty may not be used as a deterrence to crime because most crime often have deeply rooted causes, thus imposing death penalties on criminals is like trying to fix a quick solution to a very complex and complicated problem. Thus, crime can only be deterred if such root causes such as joblessness, drug abuse and increased poverty are properly identified and controlled. Other ways of deterring crime include partnerships between police chiefs and communities to prevent crime, involvement of religious organizations in crime prevention and long-term crime prevention strategies such as addressing family violence and prevention of school dropouts.

The United States should gradually move away from giving death penalty just as many other countries from various parts of the world have done. This is because there is no reasonable evidence that indicates that its continued use of death penalty has helped it in reducing criminal activities within its territories.

Lastly, the above viewpoints revolves around a range of opinions about the effectiveness in death penalty to deter crimes, a debate that may continue for as long as criminals kill and are executed for their crimes. Continued administration of death penalties in would actually result into increase in crime rates rather than reducing it.

Brutalization: brutalization refers to the process of creating a harsh or cruel feeling within an individual. It is the process of treating another individual in a cruel or harsh manner.

Capital punishment: capital punishment refers to the process by which a criminal is put to death, usually by the state, as a punishment for committing a particular crime. Capital punishment is also referred to as death penalty. It involves sentencing the criminal to death by a court of law and execution of the person thorough hanging, shooting or lethal injection.

Crime: crime refers to the act of breaching the rules, laws or regulations of a particular body, usually a governing body such as the government,. Crimes often lead to prosecutions and convictions by courts of law.

Deterrence: deterrence refers to act of using a threat of an action to prevent an individual from doing something that another person considers unlawful or unfavorable.


  1. Bakken, G. M. (2010). Invitation to an execution: A history of the death penalty in the United States. Justice Policy Journal, 183 (9), 251-267.
  2. Bedau, H. A., & Cassell, P. G. (2009). Debating the death penalty: Should America have capital punishment? : The experts on both sides make their best case. Punishment & Society, 49 (5), 27-31.
  3. Edith, J. (1997). The politics of capital punishment in U.S: views from political leaders. New Political Science Journal, 168 (1), 339-346.
  4. Ehrlich, I., & National Bureau of Economic Research. (2004). The deterrent effect of capital punishment: A question of life and death. New York: Center for Economic Analysis of Human.
  5. Glasthal, J., & Khan, J. (2001). Death Be Not Proud: Considering Perspectives Regarding the Execution of Timothy McVeigh and the Lasting Impact of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Law and Contemporary Problems, 165 (2), 79-83.
  6. Harper, C. C. & McLanahan, S. S. (2008). An introduction to capital punishment. Journal of Juvenile Justice and Detention Services 74, (3), 369-397.
  7. Karstedt, S. (2007). Explorations into the sociology of criminal justice and punishment. History of the Human Sciences, 280 (5), 651-670.
  8. Perry, G. (2009). How prisoners are wrongly convicted and executed in the Canadian Judicial System. The Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 154, (7), 99-105.
  9. Rantoul, R., Bowers, W., & Pierce, G. (2006). History of capital punishment in the United States of America. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 79, 21-25.
  10. Rohrlich, T. (2007). Does Death Penalty Deter Killers? No Clear Answer. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 280 (3), 67-75.
  11. West, L. J. (2005). Psychiatric reflections on the death penalty. The American Journal of Community Psychology, 175 (8), 349-356.
  12. Winters, P. A. (2010). The death penalty: Opposing viewpoints. The American Criminal Law Review, 267, 81-89.
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