Thursday, August 30, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

The chance of being executed in America is so remote that it cannot plausibly be a significant deterrent, argues Steven Levitt, of the University of Chicago. Even if you are on death row—a fate over 99% of murderers escape—the chance of being put to death in any given year is only about 2%. Members of a crack gang studied by one of Mr Levitt's colleagues had a 7%-a-year chance of being murdered. For them, death row would be safer than the street.
-The Economist


tom said...

Wouldn't the question here - whether fear of execution could plausibly be a deterrent - turn on the perception that potential criminals have of likely consequences, as opposed to the actual statistically likely consequences?

Assuming that most people would be as surprised as I am by the statistics given here, and that most potential murderers probably don't do the appropriate number-crunching necessary for a more rational decision, I think this quote offers a bad rebuttal to the "deterrence" case for capital punishment.

Hallq said...

They may not be doing number crunching, but most people can get a feel for risks involved. Remember, the vast majority of murderers don't even end up on death row. If a gang member hears about fellow gang members being killed by rival gangs and hears about them being sent to prison, but nobody really close to them ends up on death row, they'll worry about the first two things and not the last. Also, the long wait times for execution are widely known, so even if they don't think of it as safer than the street, they might see it as not much worse than a long prison term.

tom said...

Yes, if my first assumption - that most people (let's make that "most potential criminals") would be as suprised as I am about the actual numbers - is wrong, then my conclusion is wrong.

I tend to think that most people's pre-theoretical beliefs about the statistics in question are shaped the same way mine are: by the appearance of death penalty issues in popular culture. This would include television/film as well as news sources, which are much more likely to mention death row in the context of an actual execution (or at least not in a context that suggests the unlikelihood of execution).
Certainly, that thought might be wrong. But I would at least point out that your rebuttal only applies to gang members and other cases where the potential killer is first surrounded by (at least some) people who commit an act of murder and then, as is the likelihood, are not executed. The death penalty "deterrent" argument is untouched for other cases. According to the results of a lazily quick google search, gang related murders make up about 12% of total homicides. So I think it's fair to say your rebuttal is correct only for a minority of cases.

(By the way, I oppose the death penalty, and I'm not at all convinced that the "deterrent" argument is a good one.)