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Research shows no connection between death penalty, deterrence
Jessie Abrams
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Tuesday, June 23, 2009
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WASHINGTON (CNS)—New research released June 16 concludes criminology experts do not believe the death penalty effectively deters criminals from committing murder.
In a report from Northwestern University School of Law's Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, researchers argued data show the death penalty does not deter homicide more than long-term imprisonment.
Capital punishment as "deterrence has always been controversial and we simply wanted to try to resolve the issue by learning from those that know most about it," said Michael Radelet, who released the information.
"There has been some research that shows a connection between deterrence and the death penalty, but all of that research has been discredited. I think the data that we gathered pretty much settles the issue," he told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview.
Frank McNeirney, national coordinator of Catholics Against Capital Punishment, said the new study reaffirmed his beliefs. McNeirney said capital punishment sends the wrong message to criminals.
"When a state attempts to solve its problems via the use of capital punishment, it sends a message to all that killing people is an effective way to achieve one's goals," McNeirney told CNS in an e-mail.
While the research supports his ideology, McNeirney said capital punishment would still be an unacceptable practice regardless of what research shows. According to Catholic Church teaching, capital punishment is only acceptable in rare situations where execution is the only way to defend human life against an aggressor.
McNeirney said he doubted supporters of the death penalty will be able to consistently make cases for the use of executions as the only alternative.
"It seems to me that proponents of the death penalty, each time they seek to execute someone, have to make an ironclad case that killing the criminal is an absolute necessity, and that incarcerating him or her for life in a supermax prison would not protect human lives," said McNeirney. "That's going to be hard to prove."
In the study, titled "Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists," Radelet and co-author Traci Lacock conveyed new findings and revealed flaws in studies that have drawn opposite conclusions.
Both an Emory University study and another study by two University of Colorado students published by The Washington Post argue that executions do decrease the number of homicides, but Radelet's research said many of these findings cannot be supported by any theory and have been disproved.
Others support Radelet's research, saying their views coincide with the data; one of these is Richard Dieter, executive director at the Death Penalty Information Center. He said Radelet's research asked the right individuals the right questions to clarify the debate.
"I think this is an important research document because it goes to the experts in this field on a confusing issue. Many Americans aren't clear about it and here an overwhelming percentage of these experts believe the evidence just isn't there to support the death penalty as a deterrent," Dieter said.
Dieter argued the research confirms a long-standing conclusion from experts on the issue. He said he believes most research supporting the view that the death penalty is a deterrent is flawed because it tends to apply findings nationally from states he said aren't representative of the entire country.
More than half of the country's executions this year took place in Texas, according to Dieter, who said data from Texas should not be used as representative of the rest of the country.
Radelet's study serves as a good response to conclusions based on unrepresentative data, Dieter said, and will have an impact on the debate.

"The death penalty is now on the defensive. Many states considered abolishing it this year and some have abolished it. I think it does make a difference," Dieter said. "There is very little or no proof of the death penalty as a deterrent, and that hasn't changed."

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