Proof Is Simply Beyond The Capacity

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Certain individuals who commit crimes do so at their own free will, and many have no qualms as to the consequences of their actions. To some, it matters not the possibility that if they are caught, there is the chance they may be executed. Sometimes the crimes committed by certain persons are done so in a manner that would bewilder any other human being.

My personal belief is that there is no need for capital punishment in our society. Advocates say that capital punishment is needed in order to deter future criminals, but this is not entirely the case. Research has shown that capital punishment, as a deterrent, has no positive or negative effect. An influential student of the deterrence question, Thorsten Sellin, conducted a study that would attempt to determine the effect of capital punishment on future crime. He studied the homicide rates in contiguous states, some with and some without the death penalty, on the assumption that these states were as alike as possible in character of population, social and economic conditions, etc. His conclusion was that the death penalty had no effect on the murder rate (Sellin, 63).

This is not to say that the study performed by Sellin was perfect, for it did contain flaws. In his attempt, he looked for correlations between the homicide rate and the legal status of the death penalty, rather than the number of executions actually carried out in the states where it was legal punishment. As it may be true that contiguous states are similar in certain respects, their differences may be quite apparent. Sellin looked for characteristics evident in all of the states he compared, but these same factors may not be part of the real reason that leads to homicide. He had no way of knowing if these states were equal in all other respects, such as apprehending and convicting those who commit murder. There is simply no absolute in controlling all factors.

The issue of deterrence has been the basis on which advocates or abolitionists have grounded their arguments. It would be safe to assume that both sides have varying definitions for the term “deterrence” and the manner in which they utilize that definition to their advantage. Gertrude Ezorsky offers a dichotomous definition of deterrence that is useful in deciphering the meanings behind the arguments.

Ezorsky makes a distinction between the effects of a threat of a punishment and ...

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...ways that allow proponents or opponents to advance their own views. What also hinders the advance of this debate is that fact that the installation and implementation of capital punishment is inconsistent, for it is abolished, then brought back again. Many factors are taken into account in determining whether capital punishment is effective, but I am in complete agreement with Peter Passell when he says, “proof is simply beyond the capacity of empirical social science” (Passell, 79).

Berns, Walter, For Capital Punishment: Crime and the Morality of the Death Penalty. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1979.
Cederblom, Jerry, “The Retributive Liability Theory of Punishment,” Public Affairs Quarterly 9, 4 (1995), 305-15.
Ezorsky, Gertrude, Philosophical Perspectives on Punishment. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1972.
Passell, Peter, “The Deterrent Effect of the Death Penalty: A Statistical Test,” Stanford Law Review 28 (Nov. 1975), 79-80.
Sellin, Thorsten, The Death Penalty. Philadelphia: American Law Institute, 1959.
Van Den Haag, Ernest, “On Deterrence and the Death Penalty,” The Journal of Criminal Law Criminology, and Police Science 60, 2 (June 1969), 141-47.
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