Does the death penalty deter?

For as long as it’s been in existence, the death penalty has been controversial for many reasons, including the possibility that innocent people could be put to death. Proponents historically have argued that it serves as a deterrent and reduces murder rates where it is used. But does it? The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit research group, recently conducted an analysis of the effect of the 1,051 legal executions on the 446,457 homicides in the United States during the 1984-2006 period. What they found was surprising: In the 13 “big death” states where the penalty is used often, the homicide rate declined significantly. But it declined even more in the 18 “no death” states with no death penalty, and also declined significantly in the 20 “little death” states, including California, where the penalty is rarely enforced. The CJCJ’s conclusion: “The death penalty is irrelevant to homicide.”

Execution rates

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  High Low None California
States 13 20 18 n/a
Executions 942 109 0 13
Homicides 177,695 175,832 92,930 66,344
Homicide rate change* -34%
-24% -36% -34.3%


Source: The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice