The Economic Death Penalty: Show me the Model!

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(Will Baude) Posner and Becker’s blog posts on the economics of the death penalty provide an occasion for a few reflections.

Both Posner and Becker place a great deal of weight behind the empirical evidence that the death penalty deters crimes for which it is a punishment. (Becker explicitly disavows any other justification for the death penalty, Posner acknowledges that lots of other factors play into the calculus, but considers many of them a wash.) They don’t go as far as the famous/infamous Vermeule/Sunstein line that capital punishment may be morally required, but the commitment to this sort of utilitarian line may lead them there.

Now, I happen to support the death penalty for certain serious crimes entirely independently of its deterrent effect. But if the argument for killing murderers is to rest entirely on the econometrics, I will have to be colored skeptical.

The problem is not, I think, with some platonic form of capital punishment. I do believe that even those with a criminal or murderous bent respond to some incentives, and that even if many murderers are addled, ignorant and very short-sighted, there might be enough of an effect on the margin for some death penalty regimes to deter serious crimes.

But of course our death penalty regime isn’t that, and isn’t even close. As Steven Levitt pointed out when I took his Economics of Crime , the death penalty is 1, very rare, even for murders, and 2, very slow.

So even if we posit a rational Beckerian potential murderer who sits down and weighs the expected costs and benefits, it seems unlikely that our death penalty regime should have much place in his calculus. In a state with no death penalty and life-without-parole, he faces, if caught and convicted, being locked in a box for the rest of his natural life. In a state with the death penalty and current safeguards, he faces the likelihood, if caught and convicted, of being locked in a box for the rest of his natural life, and a very small probability of being locked in a box for many years, very probably dying of natural causes, but possibly eventually being prematurely killed by the state.

Posner briefly adverts to this problem in his post, but suggests two counterarguments:

First, that the usual estimates for how rare the death penalty is miss the fact that many murders aren’t eligible for the death penalty. He is responding to this argument by Steven Levitt and others, and his point seems fair, although he doesn’t provide his own data, so it is hard to know how far it goes.

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October 28, 2014 |

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