Death Penalty As Deterrence



“Death penalty is discriminatory and does not do anything about crime”

                                                                                                                         Bobby Scott



Khushbakht Ibrar



Capital punishment also called death penalty is a government authorized practice whereby a person who commits crime is put to death. The death penalty can be traced back to eighteenth century where it can be seen in King Hammurabi of Babylon code; over 25 crimes were punishable by death. The death penalty was also witnessed in the Hittite Code, the Draconian Code of Athens and also in Roman law of the Twelve Tablets, with methods of execution like beating to death, burning alive and drowning. A query of whether the capital punishments are effective to discourage the crime or not, have been debated for decade by policy makers, scholars, criminologist and also the general public. In this paper we would attempt to explain that there is no or little deterrence effect of death penalty.

Death penalty has been imposed since ages in order to deter the citizens from committing the crimes similar to those committed by the executed individuals. It is the modus operandi of making example of criminal to strike fear in the heart of general public.

Deterrence theory:

Deterrence is probably the fore most commonly expressed justification for the death penalty. The spirit of the theory is that the threat of being executed in the future will be sufficient to abstain people from committing heinous crimes in future.

Deterrence theory provides that criminal laws are passed with explicit punishments to discourage the individual criminal defendant from becoming repeat offender and to deter the general public from engaging in the same actions. Criminal deterrence theory has two probable applications,

1: That the punishments imposed on individual offenders will deter or prevent that particular offender from committing further crimes.

2: That the public awareness that certain offences will be punished has a generalized deterrent effect which prevents others from committing crimes.

Basically it is presumed that in deterrence theory the offenders weigh up the pros and cons of a particular course of action and make rational choices and assessing the likelihood of getting caught and also the punishment that will be received. The deterrence theory of punishment can be dated back to the early works of classical philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1678), Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794), and Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) who found that people are more likely to be dissuaded from committing crime if the punishment is speedy, firm and severe.

Now, the question as to whether the capital punishment creates fear in the mind of an individual or not is into account since ages. Research for many years have found that people do not commit crime because they are petrified of getting caught instead they are highly motivated by deep conscience. There continues a strong discrepancy with regard to capital punishment as a means to curd violent crime. Capital punishment, even in the 21st century is flawed, while doing very little to prevent crime or deter violence. There are many researches, observations and views that clearly show that capital punishment does not deter crime.

In a 1985 Gallup Poll was conducted, 62% of the respondents answered yes to the question, “Do you feel that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to the commitment of murder, that it lowers the murder rate or not?” This fell to 34% in 2006, when the question was last asked. On the other hand, the proportion of respondents who stated that the death penalty was not deterrent doubled by 2004, from 31% to 62%.

In 1995 a researcher named Peter D. Hart conducted a national opinion poll of police chiefs in the United States. They were asked if capital punishment was on priority of law enforcement field. The police chief categorized the capital punishment as last method to reduce violent crime. Death penalty could be viewed as an ineffective deterrent as most severe crimes are done without rational thought of the punishment that will follow and hence whether it is the death penalty or a life imprisonment, it does not matter. If the death penalty is deterrence, it does not relate to everyone as the theory assumes that people who commit crime can rationalize the cost and benefit behind the death penalty and their crime, however this excludes a group of people that commit crime out of rage and impulse, crimes committed under the abuse of alcohol or drugs and people who are mentally ill, lacking the ability to mentally process the consequences a crime entails.

A study conducted by Professor Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock of the University of Colorado found that 88% of the nation’s leading criminologists do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime. The study “do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists”, published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology concluded,

“There is overwhelming consensus among America’s top criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question fails to support the threat or use of the death penalty.”

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said, “I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point”. The reason why the death penalty does not serve as deterrence is that offenders do not believe they will be caught. Logically, no one would commit a murder, if one knew he was to be executed. Deterrence is a psychological process. Therefore, if an offender does not believe that a real risk is present, there will be no deterrence.

Willie L. Williams, a Police Chief of Los Angeles commented that “I am not convinced that capital punishment is a deterrent to crime because most people do not think about the death penalty before they commit a violent or capital crime” Most criminals commit crime with the preparation and mindset of escaping apprehension and any form of punishment. Findings of a study completed in 2002 suggests that 76% of active criminals and 89% of the most violent criminals either perceive no risk of apprehension or are unaware of the likely punishments for their crimes. Hence this shows how the harshness of the punishment of a crime acts to a small extent as a deterrence of crime, as only a tiny group of criminals consider the idea and consequences of their actions.

There are many countries that have retained the death penalty but the research of decades clearly shows that capital murder has been more common in states with death penalty than those where it is not used. Data from 1973 to 1984 explain that murder rates in the states without the death penalty were consistently lower and averaged only 63% of the corresponding rates in the states retaining it. Far from making society safer, the capital punishment have shown a brutalization effect on the society which means that there is a hypothesized cause and effect relationship between executions and an increase in the homicide rate. By giving death penalty, states give a message to public that killing someone under special circumstances is suitable. Therefore, the presence of the death penalty tends to increase a state’s murder rate rather than to decrease it.

1: In Pakistan, the studies has shown that the number of crimes has increased in spite of the fact that death penalty is being enforce and thoroughly applied. On June 11, 2015, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said, “the idea that mass executions would deter the kinds of heinous crimes committed in Peshawar in December is deeply flawed and mistaken, and it risks compounding injustice.” In some cases, harsher penalties may actually undermine the deterrence, as in cases of mandatory death penalty for all offenders, judges, who then lack judicial discretion, often balk at convicting and demand a higher standard of proof, which time and again leads to no conviction at all. A typical example is the earlier provision of mandatory death penalty for gang rape in Pakistan, a Lahore high court ruling in 2002 stated that “it has been noticed that whenever heavy punishment especially the sentence of death is provided and there is no alternate punishment either, the number of acquittals are bound to increase”. The similar thing happened in the famous Mukhtara Mai Case at Appellate stage.

2: In USA, the Capital punishment Refers to being sentenced to execution by the state after being convicted guilty of committing a serious or capital offence. A few examples of capital offences are murder, rape and treason. However, the fact that the death penalty does not deter crime has many supporting documents and data. In 1935 Robert Dann published an analysis of homicides in Philadelphia during 60 days before and 60 days after five highly publicized executions. Dann argued that the deterrent effect of the executions should result in lower homicide rates during the post-execution periods. The result was the opposite as the rates were higher than usual.

3: In 2003 in Canada, 27 years after the country abolished the death penalty the murder rate had fallen by 44 per cent since 1975, when capital punishment was still enforced.

Individuals are less likely to commit heinous crimes including murder if they know they would be punished is a myth as murder is committed impulsively and individuals are less likely to believe that they would be caught and punished. Death penalty may even cause more cruelty. Once a person has knowingly committed capital offence, they do not have any concern in lessoning their punishments by not committing more offences.

A report published on April 18, 2012 by National Research Council of National Academy based on the observation and data of more than three decades of research concluded that the studies that claim that death penalty has a deterrent effect on the murder rate are flawed and cannot be used to find the connection between deterrence effect and death penalty.


To conclude, the data, observation, studies and social scientist views mentioned above clearly suggests that there is no deterrence effect of death penalty on the crime rate. Countries that have retained death penalty as a punishment for heinous crimes tend to have higher murder rate than those which have abolished capital punishment. The death penalty legitimizes the act of violence by the state and gives rise to so-called brutalization hypothesis. Once a person is ready to commit a crime, he is less likely to consider the consequences of that and he commits such act with a surety that he would never be caught and executed. The mental conditions of an individual and heat of the moment leaves less opportunity to think about the punishments. Evidence around the world has shown that the death penalty has no exclusive deterrence effect on crime. Therefore, the capital punishment cannot be justified on the basis of is deterrence effect.












L.Randa,1997 “Society’s Final Solution: A History and Discussion of the Death Penalty,” University Press of America

David W. Moore, Public Divided Between Death Penalty and Life Imprisonment Without Parole, GALLUP NEWS SERV., June 2, 2004.

Dieter, R C, 1995, On the front line: law enforcement views on the death penalty

  1. M. Radelet & T. Lacock, “Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading

Criminologists, ,” 99 Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 489, Northwestern University


  1. Abramson, Emphasis on Values Is Needed to Stem Crime, Williams Says, The Los Angeles 16 Times,

April 27, 1992 at B1, 4.

Mst. Robeena and others v. The State, 2002 MLD 1193

Zahid Gishkori, 8261 prisoners: Hanging in the balance, EXPRESS TRIBUNE, December,18, 2014,

An Analysis on the Effectiveness of the Death Penalty Worldwide in the Twentieth and Twenty First Century

Lamperti. J. “Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder? A brief look at the evidence.


Death Penalty As Deterrence

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