EFFECT OF THE DEATH PENALTY ON MURDER AND NON-NEGLIGENT MANSLAUGHTER by Julian Heicklen

A subject of controversy is the effect of the death penalty on murder rates. That question is examined here. Table 1 lists the number of death sentences, the number of executions, and the per capita murder and non-negligent manslaughter rate in the United States for the years 1973ö1996. In order to correlate any dependence, we have plotted the per number of murders and non-negligent manslaughters vs. the number of death sentences per year in Figure 1 and vs. the number of executions per year in Figure 2.

The number of murders and non-negligent manslaughters per 100,000 population varied in a random way between 7.9 and 10.2 for the period encompassing 1973ö1995. Figure 1 exhibits considerable scatter, but it does indicate about a 10% decline in this parameter from about 9.5 to 8.5 for a nearly 8-fold increase of the number of death sentences per year from 42 to 325. Likewise the number of murders and non-negligent manslaughters per 100,000 population shows the same decline as the yearly number of executions increases from 0 to 56.

Even the slight 10% decrease in murder and non-negligent manslaughter rates with the increased use of the death penalty may not be significant. The 1930s represented the highest use of the death penalty in United States history. During 1933ö1939, the execution rate varied between 150 and 200 executions per year (Zawitz, 1988). In 1933, the homicide rate peaked at 9.7. It continued to fall to a local minimum of 4.5 in 1958 (Snell, 1997). During the same period of time the yearly rate of executions was dropping from an all-time high of 200 to about 50. During this period of time homicide rates decreased as the execution rate decreased.

The conclusion reached is that there is no direct correlation between the death penalty and homicide rates. Any effect that is observed is small.

On the other hand, the per capita homicide rate showed its most dramatic change between 1903 and 1907, when it rose from 1.1 to 5.0 (Zawitz, 1988). It continued to rise until it reached 9.7 in 1933. This is the time when prohibition of drugs and alcohol entered American life.

The Anti-Saloon League was instrumental in passing prohibition laws in several states. By 1906, three states were "dry." Six more went "dry" by 1909. Nine more accepted prohibition in 1913, and there were 23 "dry" states by 1916 (Meier, 1994, p. 137). In 1913 Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act prohibiting the transport of alcoholic beverages into "dry" states. In 1917, both the Senate and House of Representatives approved the prohibition amendment to the U. S. Constitution, and it was soon ratified by 3/4 of the states. It became the 18th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution and took effect on January 17, 1920. The Volstead Act was passed as a rigid enforcement law. In 1929 Congress passed the Jones Act, amending the Volstead Act to provide a $10,000 fine and a 5-year jail term for first-time offenders of the law.

Prohibition brought with it the introduction of organized crime into the United States. Crime rates, in addition to bootlegging, soared. There is no accurate account of the actual crime rates for most crimes, because many of them were associated with alcohol consumption, and thus went unreported. However we do have data for homicide, almost all of which was reported (Zawitz, 1988, p. 15). The per capita homicide rate rose from 1.1 per 100,000 residents in 1903 to 9.7 per 100,000 residents in 1933, the year that alcohol prohibition was repealed. It then dropped steadily for a number of years, but never returned to the levels before prohibition. It reached a local minimum of 4.5 per 100,000 residents in 1958, and then started to climb again as drug-law enforcement increased, reaching an all-time high of 11 per 100,000 in 1980. Since 1980 the murder and manslaughter rate has decreased to 7.9 per 100,000 in 1984ö85, then rose to 9.8 per 100,000 in 1991 and has fallen again to 7.9 in 1995 (Heicklen, 1997).
 
 

TABLE 1: EFFECT OF DEATH PENALTY ON MURDER AND NON-NEGLIGENT MANSLAUGHTER RATES

Year

Number of Death Sentencesa

Murders and Non-Negligent Manslaughters per 100,000 populationb

Number of Executionsa

1973

42

9.4

0

1974

149

9.8

0

1975

298

9.6

0

1976

234

8.8

0

1977

138

8.8

1

1978

186

9.0

0

1979

153

9.7

2

1980

175

10.2

0

1981

229

9.8

1

1982

269

9.1

2

1983

253

8.3

5

1984

284

7.9

21

1985

270

7.9

18

1986

304

8.6

18

1987

289

8.3

25

1988

294

8.4

11

1989

262

8.7

16

1990

252

9.4

23

1991

270

9.8

14

1992

290

9.3

31

1993

294

9.5

38

1994

318

9.0

31

1995

325

8.2

56

1996

299

÷

45

aSnell (1997) bMaguire and Pastore (1997)  

  Figure 1: Number of Murders and Non-Negligent Manslaughters per 100,000 population per Year vs. Number Sentenced to Death per year

  Figure 2: Number of Murders and Non-Negligent Manslaughters per 100,000 population per Year vs. Number of Executions per year

 

 References

 Heicklen, Julian (1997) "Recreational Drugs" Smart on Crime Report 0004, http://www.personal.psu.edu/jph13

Maguire, Kathleen and Ann L. Pastore, editors (1997) "Bureau of Justice Statistics Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics÷1996" Table 3.106 on page 306, U. S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJö165361, Washington, DC

Meier, Kenneth J. (1994) The Politics of Sin: Drugs, Alcohol, and Public Policy, M. E. Sharpe, Inc., Armonk, NY

Snell, Tracy L. (1997) "Capital Punishment 1996", Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin NCJö 167031, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC

Zawitz, Marianne W. editor (1988) "Report to the Nation on Crime and Justice" 2nd edition, U. S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJö105506, Washington, DC