Sunday, November 18, 2007

Kill' Em - You'll Be Glad You Did

The United States is a real, law and order country. Although maybe it would be more accurate to describe it as a real, "crime and punishment" country.

There's a lot of support in America for the death penalty but there's also a growing opposition to it. Opponents often cite studies, usually from other nations, that show that capital punishment is not a deterrent to homicide, especially murder.

Now a number of American studies have been released that claim to show that the death penalty is indeed a powerful deterrent to murder. From the New York Times:

According to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives. For each inmate put to death, the studies say, 3 to 18 murders are prevented.

The studies, performed by economists in the past decade, compare the number of executions in different jurisdictions with homicide rates over time — while trying to eliminate the effects of crime rates, conviction rates and other factors — and say that murder rates tend to fall as executions rise.

You have two parallel universes — economists and others,” said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment.” Responding to the new studies, he said, “is like learning to waltz with a cloud.”

The studies try to explain changes in the murder rate over time, asking whether the use of the death penalty made a difference. They look at the experiences of states or counties, gauging whether executions at a given time seemed to affect the murder rate that year, the year after or at some other later time. And they try to remove the influence of broader social trends like the crime rate generally, the effectiveness of the criminal justice system, economic conditions and demographic changes.

“It seems unlikely,” Professor Donohue and Professor Wolfers concluded in their Stanford article, “that any study based only on recent U.S. data can find a reliable link between homicide and execution rates.”

The two professors offered one particularly compelling comparison. Canada has executed no one since 1962. Yet the murder rates in the United States and Canada have moved in close parallel since then, including before, during and after the four-year death penalty moratorium in the United States in the 1970s.

The inconvenient fact that the American studies and the American experience stand alone to those everywhere else in the West is anything but problematical to these economists because, when you get to set the rules of the study, you work in an artificial world free of considerations such as overall crime rates, the criminal justice system, economic conditions and demographic changes. There, see it's all so simple, so very, very simple.

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