Sunday, July 09, 2006

Cost Effective Justice- 5

Go Figure: Homicides since 1945

The Sunday Telegraph reports that "homicides have soared by a quarter under Labour". Since 1997 they've averaged 737 pa, against 601 pa in the seven preceeding Tory years.

Hardly surprising you might think. But this isn't a party political matter: it's much more serious than that.

The fact is that Britain's homicide rate has been soaring ever since we abolished capital punishment forty years ago. In 1964 there were fewer than 300 homicides: last year there were 850. That's virtually a threefold increase, with an additional 550 people now being killed every single year.

We've blogged this before, arguing that it's we who've condemned those victims to death by abandoning the single most effective- and proportionate- deterrent at our disposal.

Of course I recognise there are moral arguments against restoration of the death penalty, eloquently put by the Doc among others. But the utilitarian's belief in its deterrent effect is now underpinned by increasingly solid evidence. Surely everybody knows that, don't they?

Well, actually, no. Try this letter, also in today's ST:

"I was saddened to read Elizabeth Hurley's ill-informed call for a referendum on capital punishment in Britain. If she thinks that the death penalty is a deterrent, she is wrong. Look at the USA."

The writer doesn't elaborate, but let's follow her advice and look at the USA.

Because in many ways, the US has provided a laboratory test of deterrence. Following the famous Supreme Court ruling thirty odd years ago, they suspended capital punishment for a period. But when the ruling was later reversed, most states and the Federal authorities reinstated it. So there is now a mass of before and after, with and without, statistical data to examine the relationship between the homicide rate and the penalty regime.

The following chart from the US Bureau of Criminal Justice shows the overall national picture:

And almost all the serious studies of the data say the same thing: capital punishment seems to have a very significant deterrent effect. According to a recent literature survey by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, the homicide rate increased in 90% of states following suspension, and decreased again in 67% of the states where it was reinstated. More detailed analyses at state level have concluded that on average each execution has resulted in between 5 and 18 fewer murders. For every life taken by the state, 5-18 other lives have been saved.

So when people point to the US as somehow showing that capital punishment doesn't deter, they are plain wrong. The facts are as clear as any statistics ever can be.

PS The AEI-Brookings paper is mainly concerned with the moral dimension of these findings. As they say: "This evidence greatly unsettles moral objections to the death penalty, because it suggests that a refusal to impose that penalty condemns numerous innocent people to death. Capital punishment thus presents a life-life tradeoff, and a serious commitment to the sanctity of human life may well compel, rather than forbid, that form of punishment. Moral objections to the death penalty frequently depend on a distinction between acts and omissions, but that distinction is misleading in this context, because government is a special kind of moral agent. The familiar problems with capital punishment – potential error, irreversibility, arbitrariness, and racial skew – do not argue in favor of abolition, because the world of homicide suffers from those same problems in even more acute form. The widespread failure to appreciate the life-life tradeoffs involved in capital punishment may depend on cognitive processes that fail to treat “statistical lives” with the seriousness that they deserve."

It's a version of Stalin's famous statement about one death being a tragedy, a million a statistic.


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