Does the Death Penalty Deter Crime?

Richard Berk

There have been claims for decades that in the United States the death penalty serves as a deterrent. When there are executions, violent crime decreases. But there have also been claims that executions “brutalize” society because government agencies diminish respect for life when the death penalty is applied. With brutalization comes an increase in violent crime, and especially homicides. Both sides assert that there is credible research supporting their position. In fact, a committee of the National Research Council has concluded that existing studies are far too methodologically flawed to draw conclusions one way or another. Neither side can maintain that they have empirical support. In most years, most states execute no one, and that pattern seems to be on the rise. One cannot study the impact of executions when they are hardly ever imposed, and it is difficult to separate any impact of the death penalty from the large number of other factors that affect the amount and kinds of crime. The committee’s conclusion about the claim that the death penalty deters is “can’t tell.”


Daniel Nagin and John Pepper (eds.) (2012) Deterrence and the Death Penalty, The National Academies Press (