The death penalty and its effect on crime.

Well, I got interested in this little question some time back. Whenever the headlines are filled with a gruesome enough crime, the newspapers are inundated (in their “letters” section) with calls to “Bring Back The Death Penalty”. Of course, the purpose of the justice system in most countries, in the event that a criminal has been proved to be guilty beyond reasonable doubt, is not to exact revenge on the criminal on behalf of the victims, but to ensure that the crime is punished, and (pay attention, this is the important bit) to rehabilitate the criminal.

Hence, in South Africa, our prisons are run by the department of Correctional Services (note the emphasis!), and not by the department of Revenge Meted Out Services. Most other countries follow something similar – the idea behind law and justice is to make society safer for everyone, and not to simply punish criminals, nor to use the system as a means of revenge. This brings to the fore the question “Is capital punishment a significant enough deterrent to capital crimes?”. In other words, does having and handing out the death penalty frighten criminals into not becoming criminals?

There are basically two sides to this (I’m only going to mention both, not argue them):

  1. The death penalty does reduce crime.
  2. The death penalty has no effect on crime.

A number of arguments in support of either side eventually makes it way around the papers (via the “letters to the editor” section), with the most visible ones being:

  1. Criminals are afraid to commit crime if they think they will be killed if caught, hence crime rates drop.
  2. Criminals think they won’t get caught (which is why they commit in the first place), hence have no fear of the death penalty.
  3. A person who is terminated by the state would not get another opportunity to kill again.
  4. A death penalty may actually raise the number of actual murders, as then criminals will have to ensure that all witnesses (for example a rape victim) are killed. With no death penalty a witness or two may survive.
  5. Criminals are more likely to snitch on their accomplices when caught if there is a possibility that their sentence would be reduced from “death” to “life imprisonment”.

Now I’m pretty certain that murderers don’t typically complete a course in statistics, so I decided to look it up for myself. Luckily, there are some countries that have and routinely hand out the death penalty, and some countries that don’t. So if there was a relationship between handing out the death penalty and crime rates (whether a positive or a negative one), we should be able to tell.[1]

In other words, the list of the safest countries should contain more death-penalty countries in the list, than a list of most dangerous countries if the death penalty were to make the society safer. The corollary (that the list of countries that hand out the death penalty should contain more countries that are safer) is a topic for a new blog post sometime next week.

So, we know what to expect: that the list of safest countries should contain less death-penalty-countries, and that the list of most dangerous countries should contain fewer death-penalty-countries. Lets actually check the both lists and see.

Note that I got the data on homicide rates from here, and the list of countries that hand out death-penalty sentences from over here

Lets start by looking at top ten the countries with the highest rates of crime. Lets check how many of them have the death penalty.

Country Murder Rate Death-Penalty No Death-Penalty
El Salvador 71 X
Honduras 67 X
Jamaica 58 X
Guatemala 52 X
Venezuela 49 X
Trinidad and Tobago 43 X
Colombia 35 X
South Africa 34 X
Belize 33.4 X
Brazil 25.2 X
Totals 4 6

It seems, of the most dangerous countries, that four of them hand out the death penalty, and six of them don’t.

How about the top ten safest countries (i.e. those with the least crime)? How many of them have the death penalty?

Norway (excluding attempts) 0.6 X
Oman 0.59 X
Lebanon 0.57 X
Morocco 0.53 X
Brunei 0.5 X
Hong Kong 0.49 X
Japan 0.44 X
Singapore 0.38 X
Iceland (excluding attempts) 0.31 X
Liechtenstein (excluding … 0 X
Totals 4 6

Hmm … it seems that this weeks  question is answered – the death penalty makes no difference to the top ten most dangerous or safest countries.

But is this actually truly reflective of reality for those countries that are not in the extremes? Perhaps we should rather check all the countries to see, on average, which are safer to live in – the death-penalty-countries or the non-death-penalty countries.

Check back next week for the answer to the question “On average, do the countries with more crime hand out the death penalty? Is there a relationship between the crime rate and capital punishment?”

(To Be Continued …)

Footnotes
[1] As the death penalty is only handed out for actual murder, I use the word “crime” to mean “homicide”. Not even the most ardent death penalty supporter would expect the death penalty to be handed out for shoplifting, hence there is no need to look at shoplifting statistics to see if they correlate with death penalty.

5 thoughts on “The death penalty and its effect on crime.

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  4. can you include philippines in crime statistics without death penalty. how does it fair to other countries?

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