Many studies of the past few decades have sought to determine whether the death penalty has any deterrent effect on homicide rates. Researchers have reached widely varying, even contradictory, conclusions. Against this backdrop, the committee was asked to assess whether the available evidence provides a scientific basis for answering questions of if and how the death penalty affects homicide rates.
Deterrence is only one of many considerations relevant to deciding whether the death penalty is good public policy. Not all supporters of capital punishment base their argument on deterrent effects, and not all opponents would be affected by persuasive evidence of such effects. The case for capital punishment is sometimes based on arguments that the death penalty is the only appropriate response to especially heinous crimes; the case against it is sometimes based on claims that the sanctity of human life precludes state-sanctioned killings.
The report does not consider these issues, nor does it render an overall judgement on whether capital punishment is good public policy. It only assess the scientific quality of the evidence on whether capital punishment deters homicides and recommends ways to improve the quality of future research.
The report concludes that research to date is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates.
Sponsors: National Institute of Justice, Proteus Action Fund, Tides Foundation
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