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Overview of: “The Differential Short‐Term Impacts of Executions on Felony and Non‐Felony Homicides”

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Research Summary

Social scientists have debated about whether the death penalty and/or executions deter homicides and thus save lives for at least half a century. Recent empirical analyses by Kovandzic, Vieraitis, and Boots (2009) and Land, Teske, and Zheng (2009) implied that if a deterrent effect of executions exists, it is small in magnitude and relatively short term. Discussions of Kovandzic et al. (2009) by Donahue (2009) and Rubin (2009) led to the question studied in this article: Do executions impact felony and non‐felony homicides similarly? To address this question and build on recent studies, monthly time‐series data on counts of executions and felony‐type and non–felony‐type homicides in Texas for the years 1994–2007 are analyzed. The results indicate a modest reduction, a deterrence effect, of approximately 1.96 non–felony‐type homicides in the month after an execution followed by a rebound in the following second month with a net effect of 1.4 during a 12‐month period. By comparison, the corresponding analyses of the felony‐type homicide events series produce an estimated increase, a brutalization effect, in the month after an execution of approximately 0.5 homicide events. Combining these two counterbalancing effects produces a slight short‐lived deterrent effect of an execution on all homicides taken together. This finding is consistent with the previous findings of Land et al.'s (2009) analyses of all homicides grouped together and with findings from prior studies of felony‐ and non–felony‐type homicides.
Policy Implications

These findings provide additional evidence that the deterrent effects of executions are modest and short term. In addition, they imply that there would be little, if any, deterrence of homicides in Texas if executions were not used frequently. Recently however, Texas has been a state with (a) a large population, (b) a large number of capital murders and convictions, (c) a continuing stream of convicted murderers sentenced to death, and (d) a willingness to use executions extensively. Whether the modest, short‐term deterrent effects of executions found in Texas occur in other states is an open question. But it is evident that few other U.S. states have these four characteristics. At the same time, the downside of the use of executions extensively in Texas is a partially counterbalancing brutalization effect—a slight, short‐term increase in the frequency with which perpetrators of felony crimes such as robbery kill in the process of committing the crime. And none of this speaks to ethical or cost–benefit issues in the use of capital punishment as a public policy.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Duke University 2: Sam Houston State University 3: Ohio State University

Publication date: 2012-08-01

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