There is a lot of clutter from anti-death penalty sites, which makes it hard to find all the research. They often cite statistics like those explained in this website, including the chart below that shows that murder rates in states without the death penalty are lower than those in states with the death penalty.

enter image description here

Is a straight comparison of murder rates a fair way to gauge the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent? Might the murder rates be even higher in states that currently have the death penalty if they abandoned the practice? Aren't there likely to be other factors that are contributing to higher murder rates (such as what each state considers to be "murder", or poverty levels, especially in the typically poorer southern states that carry out the majority of executions in the US)? Is there any evidence for death penalty effectiveness that attempts to control for these other variables? What about as a deterrent for other crimes besides murder?

Unless you're on here from China or Iran, I imagine this is a pretty uniquely US question. However, many European countries currently without the death penalty once had such laws, and perhaps the arguments used in those older debates would have merit.

UPDATE: I think ideally the answer to this question should involve some crime statistics from a place that had the death penalty, and then abolished it, or vice versa. Ideally modeled in a way to try and control for other factors (as much as possible).

  • 20
    One problem with using murder rates as the basis for evaluating death penalty effectiveness is that the murder rate depends enormously on the quality of the emergency rooms in the area. See this NY Times article from 2002: nytimes.com/2002/12/15/magazine/…
    – Martha F.
    Commented Mar 17, 2011 at 16:36
  • 26
    I have not personally spoken to any convicts, but my wife (a criminal lawyer) has. Without exception, when the topic has come up, every one has said that they never thought they'd get caught. Therefore, the idea of punishment never entered into the equation - at least on a conscious level. Even the ones on death row claim that they never considered the possible punishments when committing the crime. This is by no means scientific, but it is an angle that few people ever talk about.
    – fred
    Commented Mar 17, 2011 at 17:28
  • 12
    Commenting rather than answering because this doesn’t answer your question, but... I don’t understand why people care about whether or not it is a deterrent. It is immoral either way. The practice is morally unjustifiable, irrespective of its efficacy as a deterrent. Please don’t get me wrong though, I’m not saying your question is pointless or uninteresting or anything, only that it distracts from this important point without contributing to it.
    – Timwi
    Commented Mar 19, 2011 at 18:54
  • 11
    @Timwi - no, what I'm saying is that "immoral" is a culturally-dependent construct. What's immoral to you (death penalty) is 100% moral to a large portion of human population, and efficacy only has to do with how that morality evolved in a given culture, NOT the current status. Furthermore, eugenics and beating up children are poster children for why you are wrong - large portions of societies in the past as well as currently considered both eugenics AND corporal punishment quite moral.
    – user5341
    Commented Apr 14, 2011 at 15:03
  • 8
    @DVK: I think we’re getting to the bottom of it slowly. You are right, it is indeed my opinion that it is immoral. Other people consider it moral. But that’s not the point. The point is, whether you consider it moral or not, it’s not because of its efficacy. People who consider it moral don’t consider it moral because they think it works (although they use that as a rationalisation for their opinion) — if they did, they would stop considering it moral once it has been conclusively shown to be ineffective, but they don’t.
    – Timwi
    Commented Apr 15, 2011 at 13:19

4 Answers 4


tl;dr: There is no evidence supporting the conclusion that capital punishment is an effective deterrent for murder, and significant evidence to the contrary.

The only way to arrive at an alternative conclusion would be to ignore or refute:

  • the results of multiple surveys done by the United Nations;
  • a systematic review and rebuttal of all significant papers that ostensibly demonstrated statistically significant deterrence from capital punishment, by a Professor of Mathematics at Dartmouth College;
  • a systematic review and rebuttal of all significant papers that ostensibly demonstrated statistically significant deterrence from capital punishment, by a Professor of Law & Public Health at Columbia University;
  • the uncontroverted opinion of Justice Marshall of the Supreme Court of the United States who reviewed a "massive amount of evidence";
  • the opinion of an overwhelming majority of leading criminologists in the USA; and
  • the statistics in Canada that show a highly significant and consistent decrease in murder since the abolishment of capital punishment in 1976 (i.e. from a murder rate of 3.09 per 100,000 people in 1975, to 1.77 per 100,000 in 2009).

Amnesty International

Amnesty International, an organization with an incentive to corral information on this topic, provides an article, citing statistics from the United Nations, entitled “THE DEATH PENALTY, QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS” which states (with my emphasis):

What do you say to the argument that the death penalty is an important tool for a state to fight crime?

Too many governments believe that they can solve urgent social or political problems by executing a few or even hundreds of their prisoners. Too many citizens in too many countries are still unaware that the death penalty offers society not further protection but further brutalization.

Scientific studies have consistently failed to find convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments. The most recent survey of research findings on the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates, conducted for the United Nations in 1988 and updated in 1996 and 2002, concluded: "...research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis".

Recent crime figures from abolitionist countries fail to show that abolition has harmful effects. In Canada, for example, the homicide rate per 100,000 population fell from a peak of 3.09 in 1975, the year before the abolition of the death penalty for murder, to 2.41 in 1980, and since then it has declined further. In 2003, 27 years after abolition, the homicide rate was 1.73 per 100,000 population, 44 per cent lower than in 1975 and the lowest rate in three decades. Although this increased to 2.0 in 2005, it remains over one-third lower than when the death penalty was abolished.

It is incorrect to assume that people who commit such serious crimes as murder do so after rationally calculating the consequences. Often murders are committed in moments when emotion overcomes reason or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Some people who commit violent crime are highly unstable or mentally ill. Amnesty International has found that at least one in 10 of the prisoners put to death in the USA since 1977 had suffered from serious mental disorders rendering them unable to rationally comprehend their death sentence, its reasons or its implications.In none of these cases can the fear of the death penalty be expected to deter. Moreover, those who do commit premeditated serious crimes may decide to proceed despite the risks in the belief that they will not be caught. The key to deterrence in such cases is to increase the likelihood of detection, arrest and conviction.

The fact that no clear evidence exists to show that the death penalty has a unique deterrent effect points to the futility and danger of relying on the deterrence hypothesis as a basis for public policy on the death penalty. The death penalty is a harsh punishment, but it is not harsh on crime.

and, as capital punishment relates to terrorism and political violence:

Isn't the death penalty needed to stop acts of terrorism and political violence?

Officials responsible for fighting terrorism and political crimes have repeatedly pointed out that executions are as likely to increase such acts as they are to stop them. Executions can create martyrs whose memory becomes a rallying point for their organizations. For men and women prepared to sacrifice their lives for their beliefs -- for example suicide bombers -- the prospect of execution is unlikely to deter and may even act as an incentive.

State use of the death penalty has also been used by armed opposition groups as a justification for reprisals, thereby continuing the cycle of violence.

As an organization that seeks to protect human rights and is philanthropically funded as such, Amnesty International has a perceived bias towards this conclusion. However, I would expect that any persuasive research to the contrary – i.e. that homicide rates decline in areas with capital punishment – would be referenced, by AI as a matter of protocol and integrity. I have seen no such references, by AI or otherwise.

Statistics since Canada abolished capital punishment

The Canadian statistics referred to in the above can be found in a report by Amnesty International entitled “The Death Penalty in Canada: Twenty Years of Abolition”, which provides:

Contrary to predictions by death penalty supporters, the homicide rate in Canada did not increase after abolition in 1976. In fact, the Canadian murder rate declined slightly the following year (from 2.8 per 100,000 to 2.7). Over the next 20 years the homicide rate fluctuated (between 2.2 and 2.8 per 100,000), but the general trend was clearly downwards. It reached a 30-year low in 1995 (1.98) -- the fourth consecutive year-to-year decrease and a full one-third lower than in the year before abolition. In 1998, the homicide rate dipped below 1.9 per 100,000, the lowest rate since the 1960s.

Although the research in Canada only shows a correlation (i.e. not a causation), it does provide the specific statistics on a jurisdiction that abolished capital punishment – which was posed as part of this question. It is noteworthy that while Canada has uniform criminal laws across the country, its social policies are diverse as between its provinces, and yet the abolition of capital punishment lowered murder rates across the country.

Professor Lamperti, professor of Mathematics at Dartmouth College

Here is another reference, from John Lamperti, a professor of mathematics at Darthmouth College, entitled “Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder? A brief look at the evidence”, which seems to review most of the knowledge on the topic in the United States, and concludes:

Those who defend the deterrent value of the death penalty offer little systematic research to support their view. Instead, they rely on an intuitive feeling that capital punishment should be uniquely effective. When the available evidence doesn't support that conclusion, they argue that the evidence is imperfect. It is. But if there were any substantial net deterrent effect from capital punishment under modern U.S. conditions, the studies we have surveyed should clearly reveal it. They do not.

Professor Fagan, professor of Law & Public Health at Columbia University

The view of Professor Lamperti is affirmed by the systematic review of Jeffrey A. Fagan, Professor of Law & Public Health at Columbia University in his article “Capital Punishment: Deterrent Effects & Capital Costs”. In this article, Professor Fagan provides a thorough and highly critical analysis of the flaws in the statistical methods and conclusions of those who argue capital punishment is an effective deterrent:

When we apply contemporary social science standards, the new deterrence studies fall well short of this high scientific bar. Most of the studies fail to account for incarceration rates or life sentences, factors that may drive down crime rates via deterrence or incapacitation; one study that does so finds no effects of execution and a significant effect of prison conditions on crime rates. Another report shows incarceration effects that dwarf the deterrent effects of execution. Most fail to account for complex social factors such as drug epidemics that are reliable predictors of fluctuations in the murder rate over time.


The computations in the statistical models are often flawed. For example, simple corrections for large amounts of missing data produce estimates of the deterrent effect of execution that are no different from chance. Using alternate statistical models - models that account for the strong statistical correlation of murder rates from one year to the next - also produces results that show that changes in homicide rates are statistically unrelated to any measure of capital punishment.

Professor Fagan also notes that the rarity of capital punishment limits the effectiveness of its deterrence – it is applied so infrequently that it is incoherent to believe it would enter into the state of mind of potential murderers. Professor Fagan goes on to comment that no study has ever been put forward that provides any evidence whatsoever that capital punishment ever enters into the state of mind of those who are about to commit murder (i.e. none of the studies even address causation):

... There is no evidence that if aware of the possibility of execution, a potential murderer would rationally decide to forego homicide and use less lethal forms of violence. Murder is a complex and multiply determined phenomenon, with cyclical patterns for distinct periods of more than 40 years of increase and decline that are not unlike epidemics of contagious diseases. There is nothing in the new deterrence studies that fits their story into this complex causal framework.

Furman v Georgia, 1972 (SCOTUS), opinion of Justice Marshall

Much discussion of this topic in the USA goes back to a decision, Furman v. Georgia, 1972, of the Supreme Court of the United States. Professor Lamperti's paper opens with a quote from a decision of Justice Marshall, a Judge on that decision:

In light of the massive amount of evidence before us, I see no alternative but to conclude that capital punishment cannot be justified on the basis of its deterrent effect. — Justice Marshall, U.S. Supreme Court, Furman v. Georgia, 1972

Professor Lamperti's paper contrasts the quote of Justice Marshall with the views of President Richard Nixon, who expressed the opinion that “the death penalty can be an effective deterrent of specific crimes”.

It is worthwhile to note that Justice Marshall's conclusion was uncontroverted. No Judge concluded that capital punishment was justifiable on the basis that there was evidence of it being effective. Rather, the other position taken before the Court seemed to be that prohibiting states from employing capital punishment was a jurisdictional issue i.e. the power to prohibit capital punishment was outside the scope of the powers of the US federal government. As I read it, none of the Judges of the Supreme Court stated that there was any evidence before the Court that capital punishment was effective.

Almost all Criminologists

Professor Lamperti notes that his view is consistently affirmed by leading criminologists:

Marshall's view is today supported by an overwhelming majority among America's leading criminologists, who believe that capital punishment does not contribute to lower rates of homicide [footnote: Michael Radelet and Ronald Akers, "Deterrence and the death penalty: the views of the experts," Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 87, no.1 (1996), pp. 1-16.]

The above is affirmed in the more recent article “Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 99 (2009): 489-508 (Michael L. Radelet and Traci L. Lacock). Few are as eminent in criminology as Professor Radelet, from whom I select a choice quote “The more people know about the death penalty the more likely they are to oppose it”.

The United Nations, Norval Morris and Marc Ancel

Criminologist Norval Morris prepared for the United Nations (and, incidentally, cited by Justice Marshall in the Furman case), citation Capital Punishment, UN Doc. ST/SOA/SD/9 UN Doc. ST/SOA/SD/10 (1968), Vol. II, p.123 states:

It is generally agreed between the retentionists and abolitionists, whatever their opinions about the validity of comparative studies of deterrence, that the data which now exist show no correlation between the existence of capital punishment the lower rates of capital crime.

This was one of several reports prepared for the United Nations from 1959-1980. See e.g. The Abolition of the Death Penalty in International Law, By William A. Schabas at pp.156ff. One notable report was by the eminent French jurist Marc Ancel, who concluded "all the information available appears to confirm that such a removal [of the death penalty] has, in fact, never been followed by a notable rise in the incidence of the crime no longer punishable with death."

It is worth noting that when these studies began in the 1950's the majority of UN state members were "retentionist" (i.e. they retained capital punishment, as opposed to abolitionist). In 1977, only 16 or so countries were considered abolitionist (not having a penalty of death), whereas by 2012 that number was around 97. In other words, the studies were commissioned and paid for by the United Nations at a time when the organization was predominantly composed of states that employed capital punishment.


State-sponsored killing of people in the name of capital punishment is ostensibly justified because it prevents further crimes. This deterrence falls into two categories, specific deterrence (i.e. recidivism by the convicted) and general deterrence (i.e. dissuasion of potential murderers other than the convicted).

As a specific deterrent capital punishment has no known benefits over life imprisonment. As a general deterrent, there has never been a study indicating that the state of mind of any murderer has ever been influenced by the possibility of capital punishment. Further, no jurisdiction has ever been mentioned for having a decrease in crime rates because it implemented capital punishment.

A persuasive counter-argument by an advocate of capital punishment ought to explain the dramatic drop in murder rates after Canada abolished it, the opinion of the majority of US criminologists and Justice Marshall, and the comprehensive academic and UN reports indicating an absence of deterrence from capital punishment. No such counter-argument has been forthcoming.

Which is all to say that capital punishment is not known to be an effective deterrent for murder. Please permit one final quote from Professor Lamperti:

If executions protected innocent lives through deterrence, that would weigh in the balance against capital punishment's heavy social costs. But despite years of trying, this benefit has not been shown to exist; the only proven effects of capital punishment are its liabilities.

  • 3
    Please keep your interesting personal opinions for the Skeptics Chat. Only use comments to suggest improvements on this answer in a polite tone.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 20:14
  • 1
    Executions do preserve innocent lives through deterrence (by death), thus Professor Lamperti's statement that "the only proven effects of capital punishment are its liabilities" is false. Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 2:49
  • 4
    I am reminded of Foghorn Leghorn, who said “Don’t bother me with facts, son. I’ve already made up my mind.” Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 13:20
  • 3
    They're absolutely a valid source because vested interest or no, they do have some of the most comprehensive study collections on the topic. The problem is that, much like global warming, evolution and the like, proponents of the death penalty will renounce it as "obvious liberal bias by bleeding-hearts interest groups" because of it... Commented Jan 16, 2013 at 15:12
  • 3
    ... Granted, "obvious liberal bias" is pretty much their code phrase for "this study's conclusions don't say what I want them to", so they're not going to be convinced no matter what... Commented Jan 16, 2013 at 15:13

Regarding the United States, this is a hotly debated and studied issue. After reviewing the evidence, I find no clear case either way from the point of view of deterrence.

Here you can find no less than 27 peer-reviewed papers plus a dozen working papers. You can find single papers "proving" the case or "disproving" it, but also meta-studies contradicting each other... In short, there's no clear answer. Criminology is not an exact science, as it's fundamentally a branch of sociology.


In Europe, this issue is less debated and the clear winner is that the death penalty was not working and it was fundamentally unethical. There have been no surging crime rates when it was abolished and no significant calls to reinstate it.

Crime rate in Europe

Crimes recorded by the police, 1998–2008 (1,000) — Source: Eurostat

Crime rate in Europe

Offences recorded by the police, EU-27, 2005–2008 (2005=100) — Source: Eurostat

SUpport for/against Death Penalty

Support for Death Penalty in Europe (2007) — Source: Ipsos-Mori


I know I'm contributing to this answer late, but I think something needs to be stated here by the definition of deterrent. As a general deterrent (one which has an effect on the population at large), the death penalty has never been shown to be an active deterrent.

As a specific deterrent, one relative to the individual, the death penalty is highly effective. One could quickly argue that the death penalty has an effect on murder rates in this paradigm even if in a small capacity. When combined with the murder rates of a nation as a whole, becomes statistically insignificant.

It is a widely held belief in the field of Criminology, that the death penalty has no effect on crime rates or murder rates when viewed as a general deterrent, and for the most part throughout history, never has been correlated with a reduction in crime or murder. This is not to say that the need for a death penalty is in question, which is another topic entirely.

RADELET, M. L., & LACOCK, T. L. (2009). DO EXECUTIONS LOWER HOMICIDE RATES?: THE VIEWS OF LEADING CRIMINOLOGISTS. Journal Of Criminal Law & Criminology, 99(2), 489-508

The question of whether the death penalty is a more effective deterrent than long-term imprisonment has been debated for decades or longer by scholars, policy makers, and the general public. In this Article we report results from a survey of the world's leading criminologists that asked their expert opinions on whether the empirical research supports the contention that the death penalty is a superior deterrent. The findings demonstrate an overwhelming consensus among these criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question strongly supports the conclusion that the death penalty does not add deterrent effects to those already achieved by long imprisonment. [ABSTRACT FROM AUTHOR]

Choe, J. (2010). ANOTHER LOOK AT THE DETERRENT EFFECT OF DEATH PENALTY. Journal Of Advanced Research In Law & Economics, 1(1), 12-15.

There is a question whether the execution rate is appropriate to examine the deterrent effect of death penalty. Instead of using execution rate, this paper uses dummy variables to categorize states into different groups and to compare the group mean homicide rates. With US state-level panel data for the period 1995 - 2006, this paper fails to find a significant homicide-reducing effect of death penalty. [ABSTRACT FROM AUTHOR]

LAND, K. C., TESKE, R. C., & ZHENG, H. (2009). THE SHORT-TERM EFFECTS OF EXECUTIONS ON HOMICIDES: DETERRENCE, DISPLACEMENT, OR BOTH?. Criminology, 47(4), 1009-1043. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9125.2009.00168.x

Based on time-series analyses and independent-validation tests, our best-fitting model shows that, from January 1994 through December 2005, evidence exists of modest, short-term reductions in homicides in Texas in the first and fourth months that follow an execution—about 2.5 fewer homicides total. Another model suggests, however, that in addition to homicide reductions, some displacement of homicides may be possible from one month to another in the months after an execution, which reduces the total reduction in homicides after an execution to about .5 during a 12-month period. Implications for additional research and the need for future analysis and replication are discussed.

  • Welcome to Skeptics! Please provide some references to support your claims.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Jan 15, 2013 at 15:24
  • 1
    On the second paragraph, the death penalty obviously eliminates recidivism, so has perfect specific deterrence. What is missing from that statement is the number of individuals, mostly police officers, who would be killed in the line of duty because suspects are more likely to violently resist arrest if they know the death penalty is a possibility. There is also the cultural consequences for a society with state-endorsed murder i.e. the diminishing of the inherent worth of human life. Commented Jan 15, 2013 at 20:10
  • 1
    I omitted from my last comment, but it is also worth mentioning, that the death penalty has no specific deterrence in cases of wrongful execution, but a tremendous cost. Commented Jan 16, 2013 at 17:34
  • 1
    Re-offenders also have a tremendous cost. Commented Mar 4, 2013 at 12:07

Quoting Does Capital Punishment Have a Deterrent Effect? New Evidence from Post-moratorium Panel Data, by Hashem Dezhbakhsh and Paul H. Rubin, Emory University, and Joanna M. Shepherd*, Clemson University and Emory University (contested), emphasis mine:

In this study, we use a panel data set covering 3054 counties over the period 1977 through 1996 to examine the deterrent effect of capital punishment. The relatively low level of aggregation allows us to control for county specific effects and also avoid problems of aggregate time-series studies. Using comprehensive post-moratorium evidence, our study offers results that are relevant for analyzing current crime levels and useful for policy purposes.


Our results suggest that the legal change allowing executions beginning in 1977 has been associated with significant reductions in homicide. An increase in any of the three probabilities of arrest, sentencing, or execution tends to reduce the crime rate. Results are robust to specification of such probabilities. In particular, our most conservative estimate is that the execution of each offender seems to save, on average, the lives of 18 potential victims. (This estimate has a margin of error of plus and minus 10). Moreover, we find robbery and aggravated assault associated with increased murder rates. A higher NRA presence, measured by NRA membership rate, seems to have a similar murder-increasing effect. Tests show that results are not driven by tough sentencing laws, and are also robust to various specification choices. Our main finding, that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, is robust to choice of functional form (double-log, semi-log, or linear), state level vs. county level analysis, sampling period, endogenous vs. exogenous probabilities, and level vs. ratio specification of the main variables. Overall, we estimate 55 models; the estimated coefficient of the execution probability is negative and significant in 49 of these models and negative but insignificant in four models. Finally, a cautionary note is in order: deterrence reflects social benefits associated with the death penalty, but one should also weigh in the corresponding social costs. These include the regret associated with the irreversible decision to execute an innocent person. Moreover, issues such as the possible unfairness of the justice system and discrimination need to be considered when making a social decision regarding capital punishment. Nonetheless, our results indicate that there are substantial costs in deciding not to use capital punishment as a deterrent.

Note: This meta-meta-study debunks debunkers' studies, so it's not 100% certain that the death penalty doesn't scare those it's intended for. However, if death row appeals are not mandatory, they indicate a willingness to avoid the death penalty.

As evidence of innocent lives being lost to convicted murderers (thus their prison term was less effective at preventing their re-offence than death), I present a short list of convicted murderers who murdered again.

Given the arrest rate, sentencing, appeals, and long wait before a death penalty is even executed, it is more deterring to assault an armed civilian, according to this article. Those criminals do seem to value their own lives.

  • 5
    There is a meta-study debunking that article: "the most up-to-date OLS panel data studies generate no evidence of a deterrent effect, while three 2SLS studies purport to find such evidence. The 2SLS studies [...] are unconvincing because they all use a problematic structure based on poorly measured and theoretically inappropriate pseudo-probabilities that are designed to capture the key deterrence elements of a state's death penalty regime, and because their instruments are of dubious validity". Pretty damning.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 21:30
  • It certainly deters re-offenders, though. According to most of these studies, as well. Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 8:03
  • @Cees You mean after they have been executed? Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 12:52
  • @Konrad Especially after they have been executed. Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 14:53
  • 1
    That may have something to do with the fact that you're quoting fox news as a credible source and tried to turn the last paragraph of your answer regarding the death penalty into a pro-gun argument. Try to stay on topic, please. Commented Feb 27, 2013 at 14:13

You must log in to answer this question.