Capital Punishment for Crime Deterrence


Capital punishment has been the subject of considerable debate in the past, and many countries have removed the practice. Nevertheless, the United States has retained the death penalty, and executions are carried out sometimes. One of the primary arguments for the existence of the punishment is deterrence or the belief that the threat of death will convince a fraction of potential criminals to abandon their unlawful ideas.

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However, the concept has never been proven conclusively, primarily due to the lack of evidence, as it is challenging to document cases where someone contemplated a crime but decided to abandon the idea. This research proposal suggests a study design that would help illuminate the particulars of capital punishment’s effects.

Literature Review

The scholarly works reviewed for this paper include summaries of past research and moral investigations into the topic. Previous studies have been unable to reach a conclusive answer, with results showing decreases in crime, lack of effects, and increases in violence in various circumstances (Chalfin & McCrary, 2017). Countries that disagree on the applicability of capital punishment show similar violent crime rates, and much of the results may be attributed to statistical noise. Overall, there is little evidence to suggest that deterrence takes place in an objective manner, whether worldwide or within the United States, where some states choose not to use the practice.

Investigations into the matter are complicated by the vague nature of the concept, which lends much to personal interpretation. According to Bisht, Patil, and Labani (2015), different researcher groups obtained significantly varying results using the same data set.

The divisions lead to debates and questioning of the legitimacy of the methods applied. Chalfin and McCrary (2017) mention issues such as unsuitable instruments, failure to report statistical errors, and the differences caused by varying notions of potential felons’ view of the risk that they will be executed. There is no consensus on what framework is appropriate for research into deterrence, and so most debates take place in the sphere of ethics.

Objections to capital punishment began emerging several centuries ago, as alternate sentences for severe crimes became widely available. Zhang (2017) mentions notable abolitionists-such as Cesare Beccaria, Karl Marx, and Benjamin Rush, who claimed that the penalty served as a means of retribution and did not deter crime. Another often-cited reason is that the threat does not affect determined criminals that have accepted death (Zhang, 2017).

Permanent imprisonment without parole is often proposed as a replacement because it serves a similar purpose of permanently removing the offender from society and provides a long-lasting example. However, neither of the two approaches has been able to display a decisive advantage over the other.

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The moral arguments against the existence of capital punishment are twofold and do not concern themselves with deterrence as such. The first is whether the death penalty is excessive and violates the human rights of the perpetrator. According to Lee (2017), punishments that are too severe may obscure their original purpose and lead to unintended consequences. Lee (2017) also notes that the United States usually does not consider human rights when discussing the death penalty. As such, it may be possible that continued use of capital punishment would lead to a degradation of societal norms and the brutalization of human interactions, increasing violence instead of deterring it.

The second approach views sentencing as a social self-defense mechanism and questions the permissibility of killing a person for such a purpose. Patnaik (2015) compares the act to a self-defense murder and concludes that the death penalty should only be allowed if it is proven that no equally effective measures exist. Furthermore, Patnaik (2015) puts forward the idea that purely deterrence-based theories would promote executions of possibly innocent people if their claims were valid. The effect would take place if the person were believed to be guilty, and the factual truth would not be relevant. In a lifetime imprisonment scenario, the prisoner would be released upon exoneration, reducing the damage done to his or her life.

Research Question

The question that will be the subject of this study is whether capital punishment is more effective than incarceration at deterring crimes that would warrant such a response. More specifically, it is whether prison inmates in states that do not have the death penalty would have chosen to commit the crimes that they have perpetrated if the practice existed in their county. The answer to this question will help to determine whether the possibility of being sentenced to death influences the decisions of people who exhibit criminal intent and put it into practice without consideration.


The major concept in this study is deterrence from crime or the probability that an individual who is contemplating a crime will choose to abandon the idea and behave lawfully. It will be operationalized through the questioning of existing convicted criminals about their motives and the considerations that took place before the incident. The study will examine people who could have been sentenced to death if they lived in a state that permitted capital punishment.

Thus, the research should be able to gather data that depicts the thought processes of potential criminals. The information gained may lead to significant insights into the perception of capital punishment and the general relevance of the sentence to the planning of a crime.

The independent variables in this study will be the presence of capital punishment laws and the incidence of recent execution. The dependent variable will be the likelihood that an individual will choose to commit a crime. As such, the research will investigate how the existence of one or both of the independent factors above influences the decision process that leads to the execution of a severe crime. It will do so by proposing hypothetical scenarios to people who have committed such felonies and recording their responses to specific alterations that led to their decisions.

This study will utilize an experimental design, distributing questionnaires to prison inmates that have been convicted for felonies punishable by death in the United States. The prisons selected for the examination will all be located in the states where capital punishment is unused, and so the criminals do not have to consider the possibility of dying. The questionnaire will gather data on their crime, the initial reasoning behind it, and the sentence. It will then ask them to consider the idea of having capital punishment in their state and decide how it would affect their views. The gathered answers will then be analyzed using a variety of metrics, and appropriate conclusions will be drawn.

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Questionnaire Contents

  1. What is your age?
  2. What is your race?
  3. What is your ethnicity?
  4. What is your educational status?
  5. What is your family status?
  6. What crime did you commit that led to being imprisoned? If there are multiple, list the most severe one.
  7. How long is the duration of your prison sentence?
  8. What is your perception of the severity of punishments for crimes in the United States?
  9. Was your crime premeditated, or did you commit it on the spur of the moment?
  10. Did you consider the possibility that you would be caught and tried?
  11. Have you evaluated the potential length of the imprisonment you would be facing?
  12. What do you consider the reason why most states retain capital punishment laws?
  13. Are you in favor of executing people who are guilty of particularly severe crimes?
  14. Did you support the sentiment above before committing your crime?
  15. Do you believe that the executions of criminals by the death penalty frequently happen in the United States?
  16. Do you believe you would have chosen not to commit your crime if your state had capital punishment in place?
  17. If not, do you think you would have reconsidered that decision if an execution took place shortly before your crime attempt?
  18. Do you think it is likely that you would have been sentenced to death in another state?
  19. Do you think that states that retain the death penalty have a lower rate of severe felonies?
  20. What is your opinion on the idea that executions lead to brutalization, creating more violence?
  21. Do you think that capital punishment is immoral or does not fit within the framework of human rights?
  22. Do you think that capital punishment should be abolished across the entire country?
  23. Do you think other people would be dissuaded from committing crimes if your state had capital punishment?
  24. Do you think that severe punishments, in general, are a significant factor in the prevention of crime?
  25. If you have been sentenced to lifelong imprisonment, would you have preferred to be executed instead?
  26. Do you think that executing a person is a method that is superior to lifelong imprisonment in terms of public effects?
  27. If so, do you think the increased potency justifies the moral ramifications of ending a human life?
  28. If you believe that executions have a deterring effect, do you think that increased and regular publicity for lifelong inmates would have the same, or higher, impact?
  29. Do you think that there are some options that are preferable to both of the alternatives above?
  30. If so, give a short description of how you see them working.


The difficulty of obtaining reliable results is the primary obstacle to research into whether capital punishment is an effective deterrent. This study attempts to address the concern by consulting the opinions of people who went through all of the stages of committing a felony. In the hypothetical scenario of the existence of the death penalty, it would have been the only factor that could possibly make them reconsider. The design is subject to biases because it asks people to imagine fictional situations, but the circumstances closely match real events. The findings may prove valuable to understanding how much punishment matters to potential felons and whether the death penalty makes a significant difference.


Bisht, S., Patil, R. S., & Labani, S. (2015). Death penalty and crime deterrence – a review of quantitative evidences. Research Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 6(4), 274-276.

Chalfin, A., & McCrary, J. (2017). Criminal deterrence: A review of the literature. Journal of Economic Literature, 55(1), 5-48.

Lee, Y. A. (2017). Excessive punishment in US prisons. The Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Review, 4, 75-93.

Patnaik, N. (2015). On the question of capital punishment. Economic & Political Weekly, 50(32), 55-61.

Zhang, Y. (2017). Reconsidering the legitimacy of capital punishment in the interpretation of the human right to life in the two traditional approaches. International Journal of Social, Behavioral, Educational, Economic, Business and Industrial Engineering, 11(3), 529-540.

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