Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock

Dudley Sharp, contact info below, 6/09


Subject:”Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists”, by Michael Radelet, Traci Lacock (1)


There appears to be a lot of confusion, with regard to the actual findings of the subject review/survey  (hereinafter “Survey”).




Within this Survey, the response to question 12 finds that 100% (or 77) of the criminologists agree that the death penalty may deter some.


It is a rational conclusion. All prospects of a negative outcome/consequence deter the behavior of some. It is a truism.


The responses to question 8 found that 61% (or 46) of the criminologists found some support for the deterrent effects of the death penalty through the empirical, social science studies.


16 recent studies, inclusive of their defenses (2), find for death penalty deterrence.  These studies find executions deter from 4-28 murders per execution.


Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life. No surprise.


If your public policy question is “Does the death penalty deter?” The answer is “Of course it does.”


Game over? Not quite.


Can we accurately and convincingly measure how many innocent lives are spared because of the deterrent effect of the death penalty? Unlikely. Social sciences are not exact sciences. Even if all protocols and data are sound, results will still vary from study to study.  This public policy debate is so contentious, in academia, as elsewhere, that there will always be some disagreement over methodology and results. Therefore, the “convincingly” will always be problematic with such studies.


The question is not “Does the death penalty deter?” It does. The question is “Will there every be full agreement on how much the death penalty deters?” There won’t be.




The first three Survey questions are specific to murder rates and deterrence. Both reason and social science have known, for a very long time, that murder rates are not how deterrence is established.


For example, look at crime rates. Some jurisdictions have high crime rates, some low – from year to year crime rates go up, down or stay, roughly,  the same. In all of those circumstances, we know that some potential criminals are deterred from committing crimes by fear of sanction.


It is the same with all which deters, inclusive of the death penalty. Whether murder rates go up or down, whether they are high or low, there will be fewer net murders with the death penalty and more net murders without it.


Would Radelet/Lacock or the criminologists say that no criminals are deterred because one jurisdiction has higher crime rates than another or because crime rates have risen? Of course not. It would be silly to even suggest such a thing.


But, it appears that is what Radelt/Lacock are trying to do with there first three questions.


Questions 4 and 5 deal with political implications, which have no relevance to deterrence.


Statement 6 “The death penalty significantly reduces the number of homicides”. Nearly 57% (or 43) of criminologists said the statement was totally inaccurate.


How do the authors quantify a “significant reduction” in murders? They don’t. Therefore, no one has a clue as to what the authors or respondents meant.


How many innocent lives saved by deterrence is insignificant? There is no insignificant number.


One deterred is significant if it is your child’s life saved. Is 2-5 innocents saved per year or per execution a significant reduction? 11-25, 112-210, 1800-2800? What is a “significant reduction” in homicides for these 43 criminologists?


There is a reason Radelet/Lacock didn’t say: “The death penalty deters no one.” No one can rationally, or truthfully, make such a statement.


Question 7 regards whether the death penalty is a stronger deterrent to homicide than a life sentence.  91%, or a total of 67, of the criminologists said no.


Even if the death penalty is only equal in value as a life sentence, as a  deterrent, then the death penalty is an important deterrent.


There are several major tiebreakers in this “equality”.


First, look at those murderers who were not deterred. About 99.9% of all of those murderers who face the death penalty either plea bargain to a life sentence, go to trial, seeking a life sentence, argue for life, not death, in the punishment phase of their trials and fight a, seemingly, never ending appellate battle to stay alive while they are on death row.


If 99.9% of death penalty eligible murderers not deterred, tell us they fear execution more than life, what about those more reasoned, potential murderers, who have chosen not to murder? Is it possible that they, like most of us, prefer life over death and fear death more than life?


Secondly, there are a number of real life stories of potential murderers who have stated that it was the death penalty that prevented them from committing murder. This is known as the individual deterrent effect. In these cases, the death penalty was an enhanced deterrent over a life sentence, just as the first example found. In addition, individual, enhanced deterrence cannot exist without general, enhanced deterrence. Therefore, there is a general, enhanced deterrent.


Thirdly, if we are unsure about deterrence, there is no “equality” in the results of our choices.


If there is deterrence and we execute, we save innocent lives via deterrence and by preventing murderers from ever harming again. If there is deterrence and we fail to execute, we sacrifice more innocent lives by reduced deterrence and, additionally, put more innocents at risk, because living murderers are always more likely to harm again, than are executed ones. If there is no deterrence and we execute, we protect more innocents because of enhanced incapacitation. If there is no deterrence and we don’t execute, more innocents are at risk because the murderer is still alive.


The weight of the evidence is that the death penalty is an enhanced deterrent over a life sentence and any deterrence is significant for many of us.


There is a reason Radelet/Lacock didn’t ask: “Can you prove the death penalty does not deter some who were not deterred by a life sentence?” Answer: Of course not.


Radelet/Lacock may misinterpret how important deterrence is to the argument for capital punishment.


No one can support the death penalty, solely, because of deterrence, because they first must find the sanction just and deserved. Just ask anyone that says they support the death penalty solely because of deterrence: “If you didn’t find the person deserved the death penalty, would you still support their execution because of deterrence?”


The Survey review appears to agree that deterrence is not much of a foundation for death penalty support. Folks support the death penalty because it is a just and appropriate sanction for the crimes committed – the same reason they support all legal sanctions.


80% of those polled in the US support the death penalty for death eligible, capital murders. (3)


However, Radelet/Lacock overlooked that death penalty deterrence appears to be a significant threat to anti death penalty folks. That is because a deterrent effect will mean that in achieving their goals anti death penalty folks will be sparing the lives of murderers, at the cost of more innocents murdered. It is a tough result for anti death penalty folks who  find themselves with a terrible dilemma.


The death penalty saves lives, in at least three ways, over a life sentence, – enhanced incapacitation, enhanced due process and enhanced deterrence. Yet, those benefits remain secondary to execution being a just and appropriate sanction for some murders.




Pretend that there is an imaginary world where the evidence is completely neutral on the effects of negative prospects, where there is no evidence of what incentives mean to behavior.

Do we have two equally balanced prospects? The death penalty/executions deter and the death penalty/executions don’t deter.


This prospect is neither inconclusive nor equally balanced, because you have a prospect between sparing innocent life, via death penalty/execution deterrence or a prospect of death penalty/execution, with no deterrence, but enhanced incapacitation.


If deterrence is inconclusive, the prospect of saving innocent lives is not.


Let’s look at what criminologists are not saying. They are not saying “The death penalty deters no one.” They can’t. Reason, common sense and human experience all find that the prospects of a negative outcome/consequence deter some. It is a truism.


Why would the most severe criminal sanction be the only one that doesn’t deter some? It wouldn’t be.


All legal sanctions deter some. Put another way, “If all sanctions for criminal activity were done away with, what do you think would happen?”


This debate is often turned backwards, with anti death penalty folks saying “There is no deterrent effect of the death penalty.” or asking “Can you prove there is a deterrent effect?”


As all prospects of a negative outcome/consequence deter some, the burden of proof is not on those who say the death penalty deters, but on those who say it does not. Can death penalty opponents prove that the death penalty does not deter some? Of course not.


What social science conflicts with the notion that the potential for negative outcomes/consequences restrains the behavior of some? There are none. Execution is the most serious negative outcome/consequence that a murderer may face.




This Survey was funded by Sheilah’s Fund at the Tides Foundation in San Francisco and was arranged through the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) in Washington, D.C.


The Tides Foundation Death Penalty Mobilization Fund’s sole purpose is the end of the death penalty. Sheilah’s Fund is a direct contributor to anti death penalty efforts, as well. 


The DPIC is one of the leading anti death penalty groups in the US and, in my opinion, is one of the most deceptive.


Prof. Radelet has been one of the most active anti death penalty activists for decades. 


Jeffrey Fagan is a ASC Fellow and has been an anti death penalty activist for decades.


For context and perspective, it is important to look at the recent past and current positions of the American Society of Criminology (ASC).


Not long ago,  the subtitle to the ASC Death Penalty Resources page was “Anti-Capital Punishment Resources”. They were a proud anti death penalty organization.  As today, ASC listed few, if any,  capital punishment resources which had a positive view of the death penalty.


If you visit their site, today, and go to their death penalty material, references and links, it is almost all anti death penalty. Their referenced essays are typical anti death penalty material that are, easily, contradicted.


This is not uncommon in academia.


The ASC has an official position against the death penalty.


Bias can be overcome and studies/reviews can be accurate and reliable despite bias. It is always a benefit to the reader to know the bias of the funding agency and author(s) of any study/review.


1)  Northwestern University School of Law’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


2) As noted in the Survey, the study authors have not replied to all criticisms of their econometric studies finding for deterrence, just some. That often reflects that the authors found no reason for a defense because the criticism was unworthy of rebuttal (my suspicion with Fagan) or they have not yet published a response (my suspicion with Berk). The fact that 61% of the criminologists find some credibility with deterrence, as detected by the empirical studies is important.


Some of the 16 studies and their defenses 
Article on Death Penalty Deterrence, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation



3) Most quoted polls wrongly poll for murder, not capital murders. The death penalty is only an option in limited capital, death eligible murders. EXAMPLES: (1)82% in the US favored executing Saddam Hussein. In Great Britain: 69%, France: 58%, Germany: 53%, Spain: 51%, Italy: 46%. (Le Monde (France) , 12/06); (2) 81% support Timothy McVeigh’s execution – “the consensus of all major groups, including men, women, whites, nonwhites, “liberals” and “conservatives.” 16% oppose (Gallup 5/2/01); (3) 85% of liberal Connecticut supported serial/rapist murderer Michael Ross’ “voluntary” execution (Quinnipiac 1/12/05); (4) 79% support death penalty for terrorists (4/26/2007 New York State poll); (5) 78% of Nebraskans support death penalty for “heinous crimes.” 16% opposed.(MPB Public Affairs Poll, 2/14/08).


Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail 713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas
Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS, VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O’Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.

13 thoughts on “Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock

  • July 2, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    I agree that the abolitionists are not really interested in LWOP. >
    I send this e-mail so you know the disastrous results that has resulted in Spain further legal reforms proposed by the liberals: should know the Spanish experience in abolishing the death penalty.“It was not the first time they killed. And he did not need to be put to the eyebrows to know that perhaps need to use the huge machete which accompanied the gun blanks decorativa also carried on Tuesday with his nephew when he entered the jewelry in the basement of the municipal market Castelldefels.Ya stuck with him 18 years, almost two decades ago, a shot in the head to lift a trader Barcelonan booty amounting to 1,000 pesetas and then some sneakers.
    When leaving uncle and nephew, on the floor of the jewelry Royo lay the owner of the establishment, Jose Luis Royo, his wife Rosa Maria Alonso and Carlos, one of their children.
    The alleged perpetrators of the crime were arrested three minutes later. Juan Antonio Hernandez Sanchez is 20 years and, despite having committed at least a dozen robberies, has not put one foot in prison or a detention center until now. Fernando Sánchez Medina, the man who knew death is 37 years, and has an extensive criminal history. The two are neighbors in the slum of La Mina de Sant Adrià del Besos. Fernando is the uncle of John.
    The cruelty of the murderer did the researchers think that the criminals had acted under the influence of drugs or withdrawal syndrome. They are not escaped, of course, that were committed against two politoxicómanos.Pero was not the case. Apparently, Sánchez Medina does not need to get wild horse.
    JUNE 1985 / disorder AND DAMAGE
    The first arrest of Sanchez Medina came in June 1985 for public disorder, damage to a trade in the city. He counted 16 years. Failed to enter prison. Neither took the train when the July 22, 1987 was arrested for a robbery with force, including Barcelona.No was armed, which helped to achieve his lawyer’s release.
    His first offense of blood occurred two days after this latest incident. On July 24, 1987, Sánchez Medina came along with his two buddies, Pedro Alberto, and Vicente, both aged 17, a shop in the street Pujades Barcelona. He was 18 years. It was not the first club to beat all three together. But that would leave there with his first fatality in the … ¿Conscience?
    The owner of the trade, Enrique Jaen, resisted. He blew the head with a shotgun cut canyons. He lives for some sneakers and 1,000 pesetas. A botín.Seis days later, the three murderers were arrested in a stolen car. Tried to avoid capture, but a police officer shot and blew the wheels of the vehicle.
    Medina Sanchez then hit a first jail. Entered the model of Barcelona, one of the oldest of his stay there España.Durante before trial played an escape attempt. Hearing Barcelona sentenced to sentence

  • February 23, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Hey Mike!! But life imprisonment should be equally supported with death fear. Life may be longer and death may make one rude enough.

  • April 28, 2011 at 2:02 am

    There are a few questions on your site.
    How can I contact the administration?

  • June 10, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I love seeing websites that understand the value of providing a quality resource for free.

  • June 4, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    I do not, or fail to see the empirical data that supports your claim that the death penalty deters crime? In other words, there is no visible sources to support the continuation and use of the death penalty as a deterrent. Now if you all just enjoy “legally” killing then just come out and say it. You won’t be on the same playing-field as the murders–in your minds. Anyhow, I did notice one of your links was dead–no pun intended–so that must be where your support for your claim for the death penalty lies?

  • June 4, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    James, It does not take a rocket scientist to follow the link and figure out where the article is now, but for those like you, who are not internet savvy, I fixed it. Thanks for the heads up.

    Seems caps were used and they must have changed servers but the page is there and was never “dead”. And your cute little pun is not so cute. How about a real argument about the study instead of below the belt put downs.

    My question then is … So do you admit you would rather put more innocents to death to save murderers without the death penalty? I suppose I could throw out insults to you and say “Admit it you love to see your fellow citizens murdered. If the criminals were dead you wouldn’t get your fill of TRUE CRIME stories.”

    Nah, I will not go there. I am sure Mr. Sharp can answer you in a more polite way then I. ~Patti

  • June 8, 2013 at 8:32 pm


    Sorry, the link was changed. It is, now, 28 studies.

    It is odd that anyone would think the death penalty was not a deterrent.

    1) The evidence that the death penalty deters some is overwhelming. The evidence that the death penalty deters none is non existent.

    2) All prospects of a negative outcome deter some. That is a truism. Execution is the most severe negative outcome for criminals.

    3) No study finds that the death penalty deters none. They cannot. No credible academic says the death penalty deters none. Rationally and factually, they cannot.

    The case for death penalty deterrence, as with all criminal deterrents, overwhelms the evidence that none are deterred, an absurdity.

    4) There are numerous cases where it has been found that potential murderers have been deterred from committing murder, because of their fear of the death penalty (1).

    This is known as individual deterrence. The death penalty deters some. Not only is such confirmed, it cannot be rebutted, as neither rationally nor factually can anyone state the death penalty deters none.

    5) General deterrence exists, because individual deterrence could not exist without it.

    6) Anti death penalty folks say that the burden of proof is on those who say that the death penalty deters. Untrue. It is a rational truism that all potential negative outcomes deter some – there is no exception.

    It, then, follows that it is the burden of death penalty opponents to prove that the death penalty, the most severe of criminal sanctions, is the only prospect of a negative outcome that deters none. They cannot.

    7) All criminal sanctions deter. If you doubt that, what do you think would happen if we ended all laws, all criminal sanctions and all law enforcement? No rational person has any doubt. All aspects of what we now call “crime” would rise, some overwhelmingly. Somalia comes to mind.

    Some would have us, irrationally, believe that the most severe sanction, execution, is the only sanction which deters none.

    8) All criminal sanctions, regardless of crime/murder rates, deter some (2). Just because crime/murder rates are low in one jurisdiction and high in another, doesn’t mean that no one is deterred in the jurisdiction with higher rates, as death penalty opponents would claim.

    We all know that within different states or countries, there are towns, cities and neighborhoods which have varying crime/murder rates. All sanctions deter in all of those jurisdictions, but they have different rates because of different circumstances (2). It is not that none are deterred, simply because there are higher crime/murder rate in one jurisdiction than another. The claim is irrational on its face (2).

    Let’s say one jurisdiciton has the lowest of all crime rates. Does that mean that in all other jurisdicitions that none are deterred, because all of them have higher rates than that one? Again, it’s ridiculous on its face, but that is what anti death penalty folks are sayin

  • June 8, 2013 at 8:35 pm


    9) Anti death penalty columnists Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune states, “No one argues that the death penalty deters none.” “Will someone bent on murder turn from the crime when he contemplates the fact that he may be executed for it? Obviously that will happen.” (3). More precisely, it “does” happen and always has. Yes, some do argue, without rational and factual support, that the death penalty deters none.

    Zorn is correct, the issue is not “Does the death penalty deter?”. It does.

    The only issue is to what degree.

    Therefore, anti death penalty efforts must contend with the reality that sparing murderers does sacrifice more innocent lives , by reduced deterrence, lesser incapacitation and lesser due process, and executing murderers does save more innocent lives, by enhanced incapacitation, enhanced deterrence and enhanced due process.

    10) Even the dean of anti death penalty academics, Hugo Adam Bedau, agrees that the death penalty deters, but he doesn’t believe it deters more than a life sentence (4).

    He’s right that it deters.

    The evidence is that the death pewnalty is an enhanced deterrent over a life sentence. Nearly 100% of those murderers subject to the death penalty do everything they can to avoid the death penalty (5).

    What of potential murderers? They, like the rest of us, embrace life more than death and fear death more than life. That which we fear the most, deters the most. That which we embrace more, deters less. Both the anecdotal and rational evidence finds that the death penalty is a greater deterrent than a life sentence.

    The evidence is expressly clear and overwhelming that death is feared more than life and life is preferred over death, not just for potential murderers who may face execution, but by a majority of all of us.

    When 99.7% of murderers, who are subject to the death penalty, tell us they fear death more than life (5) and when about 99.9% of the rest of us (excluding the determined suicidal and/or terribly ill) tell us they prefer life over death, it is a certainty that some potential murderers, overwhelmingly feel the same, and thus fear execution more than life.

    What we fear the most deters the most. This is historically, factually and rationally true.

    Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life. No surprise.

    Would a more rational group, those who choose not to murder, also share in that overwhelming fear of death and be deterred by the prospects of execution? Of course – just as we all do.

    11) There is substantial factual evidence for anecdotal death penalty deterrence and as an enhanced deterrent (1).

    12) Consider:

    a) If we execute and there is no deterrence, we have justly punished a murderer and have prevented that murderer from ever harming/murdering, again, thus saving more innocent lives.

    b) If we execute and there is deterrence, we have those benefits (a), plus we have spared even more additional innocent lives via deterrence;


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