September 13, 2016

Death penalty deterrence research and arguments that the death penalty is morally required

As I mentioned in class, some years ago Professors Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule  produced a provocative article suggesting that new deterrence evidence might make the death penalty morally required for state actors seriously concerned with value of life.   Here is a link to this article and its abstract, with one line stressed to pick up the theme developed in class that government killing is different-in-kind from other kinds of killing:

Cass R. Sunstein & Adrian Vermeule, Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? Acts, Omissions, and Life-Life Tradeoffs , 58 Stan. L. Rev. 703 (2005):

Many people believe that the death penalty should be abolished even if, as recent evidence seems to suggest, it has a significant deterrent effect.  But if such an effect can be established, capital punishment requires a life-life tradeoff, and a serious commitment to the sanctity of human life may well compel, rather than forbid, that form of punishment.  The familiar problems with capital punishment -- potential error, irreversibility, arbitrariness, and racial skew -- do not require abolition because the realm of homicide suffers from those same problems in even more acute form.  Moral objections to the death penalty frequently depend on a sharp distinction between acts and omissions, but that distinction is misleading in this context because government is a special kind of moral agent.   The widespread failure to appreciate the life-life tradeoffs potentially involved in capital punishment may depend in part on cognitive processes that fail to treat “statistical lives” with the seriousness that they deserve.  The objection to the act/omission distinction, as applied to government, has implications for many questions in civil and criminal law.

Alternatively, if you like digging into social science research, the modern empirical debate over the death penalty should be informed by a collection of some data-crunching on the deterrent effect of capital punishment available via this page assembled by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.  Notably, CJLF is supportive of the death penalty; the Death Penalty Information Center is opposed to the death penalty, and it has this webpage criticizing the studies appearing on the CJLF's page concerning deterrence.

September 13, 2016 in Deterrence, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (1)

January 27, 2015

Deterrence research and the "life-saving" argument that the death penalty is morally required

As I mentioned in class, some years ago Professors Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule created a stir with a provocative article suggesting that new deterrence evidence might make the death penalty morally required for states concerned with value of life. Here is a link to this article and its abstract:

Cass R. Sunstein & Adrian Vermeule, Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? Acts, Omissions, and Life-Life Tradeoffs , 58 Stan. L. Rev. 703 (2005):

Many people believe that the death penalty should be abolished even if, as recent evidence seems to suggest, it has a significant deterrent effect.  But if such an effect can be established, capital punishment requires a life-life tradeoff, and a serious commitment to the sanctity of human life may well compel, rather than forbid, that form of punishment. The familiar problems with capital punishment -- potential error, irreversibility, arbitrariness, and racial skew -- do not require abolition because the realm of homicide suffers from those same problems in even more acute form. Moral objections to the death penalty frequently depend on a sharp distinction between acts and omissions, but that distinction is misleading in this context because government is a special kind of moral agent.  The widespread failure to appreciate the life-life tradeoffs potentially involved in capital punishment may depend in part on cognitive processes that fail to treat “statistical lives” with the seriousness that they deserve.  The objection to the act/omission distinction, as applied to government, has implications for many questions in civil and criminal law.

As explained in class, the suggested prompt for mini-papers to be submitted on Feb 9 is to write to a legislator who is a kind of "agnostic supporter" of the death penalty based on the research suggesting executions help to save at least a few innocent lives.

Alternatively, if you like digging into social science research, you can write about the modern empirical debate informed perhaps by a collection of some recent data-crunching on the deterrent effect of capital punishment available via this page assembled by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.  Notably, CJLF is supportive of the death penalty; the Death Penalty Information Center is opposed to the death penalty, and it has this webpage criticizing the studies appearing on the CJLF's page concerning deterrence.

January 27, 2015 in Deterrence | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 23, 2014

Doesn't EVERY punishment theory support a death sentence for Ehrlich Anthony Coker?

After a final review of what we should take away from the McClesky ruling, we will turn for our last week of death penalty discussion to the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence which places categorical limits on what crimes cannot result in capital sentence and what criminals can not be executed for their crimes.  Here, in order, are the major rulings in this series:

Offense-based Eigth Amendment categorical prohibitions on the death penalty:

Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977) (precluding imposition of the death penalty for offense of adult rape)

Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137 (1987) (precluding imposition of the death penalty for homicide accomplice lacking reckless indifference to life)

Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008) (precluding imposition of the death penalty for offense of child rape)

Offender-based categorical prohibitions on the death penalty:

Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988) (precluding imposition of the death penalty on offenders under age 16 at time of crime)

Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) (precluding imposition of the death penalty on offenders who suffer from mental retardation (reversing 1989 ruling holding otherwise))

Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (precluding imposition of the death penalty on offenders under age 18 at time of crime (reversing 1989 ruling holding otherwise))

As I asked at the end of last week, given that the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence precludes legislatures from mandating the death penalty in any kind of case, and thereby requires and ensures that each crime and offender with have individual circumstances considered by the sentencing judge and/or jury, what justifies another set of Supreme Court rulings that preclude legislatures from ever being allowed to even consider the death penalty for certain crimes or offenders?

Contextualizing these matters, consider the qusry in the title of this post as it relates to theories of punishment and Georgia's interest in having the death penalty as a possible punishment for Ehrlich Anthony Coker. For a reminder, here is how the lead dissent in Coker v. Georgia describe the petitioner whose death sentence was reversed by the Supreme Court in that case and the consequences of the ruling for Georgia:

On December 5, 1971, the petitioner, Ehrlich Anthony Coker, raped and then stabbed to death a young woman. Less than eight months later, Coker kidnaped and raped a second young woman. After twice raping this 16-year-old victim, he stripped her, severely beat her with a club, and dragged her into a wooded area where he left her for dead. He was apprehended and pleaded guilty to offenses stemming from these incidents. He was sentenced by three separate courts to three life terms, two 20-year terms, and one 8-year term of imprisonment. Each judgment specified that the sentences it imposed were to run consecutively, rather than concurrently.  Approximately 1.5 years later, on September 2, 1974, petitioner escaped from the state prison where he was serving these sentences. He promptly raped another 16-year-old woman in the presence of her husband, abducted her from her home, and threatened her with death and serious bodily harm. It is this crime for which the sentence now under review was imposed.

The Court today holds that the State of Georgia may not impose the death penalty on Coker. In so doing, it prevents the State from imposing any effective punishment upon Coker for his latest rape. The Court's holding, moreover, bars Georgia from guaranteeing its citizens that they will suffer no further attacks by this habitual rapist. In fact, given the lengthy sentences Coker must serve for the crimes he has already committed, the Court's holding assures that petitioner -- as well as others in his position -- will henceforth feel no compunction whatsoever about committing further rapes as frequently as he may be able to escape from confinement and indeed even within the walls of the prison itself.

February 23, 2014 in Death eligible offenses, Death penalty history, Deterrence, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 02, 2011

Am I right that conclusive deterrence evidence would "solve" death penalty debate?

I mentioned in class my belief that if we had truly conclusive and indisputable empirical evidence that using the death penalty to sentence/execute guilty murderers indisputably saves innocent lives, then there would be very little political and social debate concerning using the modern death penalty to sentence/execute guilty murderers.  Does anyone want to take issue with this claim?  Specifically, does anyone wish to argue that, even in the face of truly conclusive and indisputable that abolishing the modern death penalty would cost some innocent lives, that we still should get rid of the death penalty?

Critically, as revealed by reports at this pro-death penalty website and responses at this anti-death penalty website, there plainly is not clear empirical evidence that using the death penalty to sentence/execute guilty murderers saves innocent lives.  Thus, one might reasonably accept my contention and still categorically oppose the death penalty given the current (and perhaps inevitable) absence of conclusive empirical evidence.  Still, I want to have a discussion — here on the blog and/or in class — concerning my basic assertion that conclusive empirical evidence here could end what is often cast as a purely moral debate.

UPDATE:  Inspired in part by the many thoughtful and effective responses to my initial inquiry, I am going to sharpen the hypothetical and see if the responses stay the same.  

Let's suppose that we now have truly conclusive and indisputable evidence that the summary execution of Osama Bin Laden served to very significantly reduce the number and scope of terrorist attacks in the Middle East and around the world (including attacks being planned for the US), whereas the capture and continued confinement of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has served to very significantly increase the number and scope of terrorist attacks in the Middle East and around the world (including attacks being planned for the US).  

If we did have truly conclusive and indisputable evidence that OBL's quick execution saved many innocent lives in the US and around the world while KSM's capture and likely life imprisonment has cost many innocent lives in the US and around the world, do you think persons with moral opposition to the death penalty would still want all major terrorist suspects handled like KSM rather than like OBL?  (Ignore, for purposes of this hypo, that KSM was waterboarded, though maybe that makes it easier to accept my supposition that how the US has dealt with KSM has cost more lives than how the US dealt with OBL.)

Steve D. gets to the heart of my inquiries here when he states that "only someone who bases their morality on pure utilitarianism would be swayed by such evidence," but he then claims that "most people are not utilitarians."  I have the contrasting belief that everyone is a utilitarian if and when — and perhaps only if and when — the stakes get high enough and the empirical evidence is conclusive.  And I think this is a critical issue to explore at the outset of any death penalty discussions becausemany people on all sides of the DP debate are often (1) quick to assert that nothing is more valuable/important than innocent lives, and (2) eager to claim that they have strong (but not conclusive) empirical evidence to support their DP position(s).

September 2, 2011 in Deterrence, Pro/Con arguments surrounding the death penalty, Sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

January 27, 2010

Some "scientific" and "academic" discussions of death penalty deterrence

Though we did not have time for me to finish connecting my themes of scientific discovery and deterrence theory in the context of the death penalty, I do have space on this blog to link to lots of (totally optional) reading on the topic of whether the application of the death penalty in the United States may actually save innocent lives. 

Specifically, a collection of some of the recent scientific-data-crunching research on on the deterrent effect of capital punishment is available here from the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.   In addition, a few years ago Professors Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule created a stir with a provocative law review article suggesting that new deterrence evidence might make the death penalty morally required for states concerned with value of life.  In this older post you can find links to this paper and to various responses it has generated.

If you do some Google searching, you can quickly find lots of other websites with lots of other death penalty deterrence discussions.  But you will generally find that folks/organizations against the death penalty are often eager to stress studies and evidence undercutting deterrence claims, and that folks/organizations for the death penalty are often eager to stress studies and evidence bolstering deterrence claims. 

In the comments to this post and in class next week, I would like to hear thoughts about whether folks believe this kind of bias is inevitable and unavoidable in all studies/debates about deterrence (whether in the death penalty context or in other criminal justice settings), or whether I should continue to hope that someday will we have good enough scientific tools and smart enough researchers to come to a definitive conclusion as to the "true reality" of deterrence in the application of particular types of punishment.

January 27, 2010 in Deterrence, Pro/Con arguments surrounding the death penalty | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 11, 2007

Assembling recent DP deterrence literature

As I mentioned in class, last year Professors Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule created a stir with a provocative article suggesting that new deterrence evidence might make the death penalty morally required for states concerned with value of life.  Below I have provided links to this paper and various responses it has generated:

January 11, 2007 in Deterrence | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack