Experts Agree: Death Penalty Not A Deterrent To Violent Crime

January 15, 1997

GAINESVILLE — Friday is the 20th anniversary of the first execution in the United States since the death penalty’s reinstatement, and a University of Florida researcher’s new study shows 90 percent of the nation’s top criminologists say killing people to deter violent crime is an immense waste of time and money.

“Among the experts, there is overwhelming consensus that the death penalty never has been, is not and never could be a deterrent to homicide over and above long imprisonment,” said Michael Radelet, chairman of UF’s sociology department and a longtime researcher of death penalty issues. “The rates of consensus were much higher on this question than I ever thought possible. We never see 90 percent of criminologists agree on anything.”

It was on Jan. 17, 1977, that Gary Gilmore faced a Utah firing squad to become the first man executed in the United States since the Supreme Court again legalized the death penalty in 1976. Through Dec. 31, 1996, 357 other prisoners have been executed.

For the study, Radelet and UF sociology Professor Ronald Akers surveyed 67 current and former presidents of the top three criminology professional organizations — the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences and the Law and Society Association. The study will be published next month in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

“We wanted to gauge the opinions of the people who know the literature and how the death penalty has been researched,” Radelet said.

He said people need to keep in mind what it means to have an effective deterrent — the penalty persuades a person not to commit a violent criminal act — and distinguish that from a retributive effect, or punishment for the criminal.

“Deterrence means that we execute people to send a message to others,” Radelet said. “After a while, increases in the severity of punishment have decreasing incremental deterrent effect. So if you haven’t deterred somebody by life, you re not going to deter them by death.

“If you want to deter people from leaning on your stove, medium heat works just as well as high heat.”

Radelet said a large segment of the pro-death penalty community and numerous politicians regularly — and incorrectly — cite the death penalty’s supposed deterrent effect in their arguments for continued executions.

“Politicians who say we need the death penalty to cut the crime rate or arguments of that sort are simply wrong,” Radelet said. “The death penalty has absolutely nothing to do with crime rates. If politicians are serious about reducing high rates of criminal violence, they’re barking up the wrong tree.”

So why do people support the death penalty so fervently?

In addition to the retributive argument, Radelet says many death penalty supporters feel that without executions, the offender will be released from prison after serving a short sentence. When people are asked about current statutes, where the only alternative to the death penalty is life without parole, support for the death penalty falls off significantly.

“If you ask about death penalty vs. life in prison with restitution, support for the death penalty drops to a minority position,” said Radelet. “That’s in part based upon the recognition of the lack of deterrent effects and recognition of the tremendous cost of the death penalty trials.”

Radelet said the cost of executing a prisoner in Florida averages about $3.2 million, mostly in trial costs. Keeping that same person in prison for life costs only about $600,000, and the millions of dollars spent on executing prisoners could be put to much better use, he said.

“If we were to ask experts for ways to reduce criminal violence,” Radelet said, “they would come up with two or three dozen suggestions of programs that need increased funding and none of which would include the death penalty.”