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November 19, 2007

More on death and deterrence

For reasons known only to the New York Times, that paper has run major articles on the death penalty for the past two days.

Yesterday, a front-page article explained that "[a]ccording to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives. For each inmate put to death, the studies say, 3 to 18 murders are prevented." This is a remarkable thing to read in the Times. Sure, people contest these studies, saying they're based on "faulty premises, insufficient data and flawed methodologies." But, there they are.

Today, an article discussed efforts in the New Jersey legislature to abolish the death penalty, which one may fairly characterize as moribund, the state having not executed anyone since 1963. The move is symbolic for supporters of abolition, who have a good deal of backing for the measure (including that of Gov. Corzine). Yet, there are those studies again: "But supporters of the death penalty have as ammunition a number of recent academic studies backing one of their principal arguments: that executions do have a deterrent effect on the murder rate."

Yesterday's article quoted an opponent who seems to have been moved by the studies:

"The evidence on whether it has a significant deterrent effect seems sufficiently plausible that the moral issue becomes a difficult one, said Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has frequently taken liberal positions. "I did shift from being against the death penalty to thinking that if it has a significant deterrent effect it's probably justified."
What makes this pair of articles very strange to me is that I remember writing about this same topic back in June: "Death and deterrence." And everything here is already there in my post, including good old Prof. Sunstein. Just scroll down. (The abolition proposal in New Jersey is new, but I think that's it.) I used my post in June to distinguish between moralists and practicalists on both sides of the death-penalty debate. I argued that moralists on both sides would be largely unmoved by studies on deterrence, no matter what the results.

I'm not sure what's revved up the Times' death-penalty engines, but I'm glad to see the studies on deterrence may be having an effect on others, even if, as a moralist, I don't consider them very relevant to me.