THE SHORT-TERM EFFECTS OF EXECUTIONS ON HOMICIDES: DETERRENCE, DISPLACEMENT, OR BOTH?*

Authors


  • *

    Revision of a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Los Angeles, California, November 2, 2006. We thank Jeffrey Fagan, Frank Zimring, and the anonymous reviewers for useful comments on an earlier draft of the paper. We also thank Edward Marshall, Assistant Attorney General for Texas, for his assistance in reviewing the legal cases and legal issues related to the death penalty in Texas and Lori Kirk, Uniform Crime Report statistician at the Texas Department of Public Safety, for her assistance in preparing the homicide data used in the analysis. Direct correspondence to Kenneth C. Land, Department of Sociology, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0088 (e-mail: kland@soc.duke.edu).

Abstract

Does the death penalty save lives? In recent years, a new round of research has been using annual time-series panel data from the 50 U.S. states for 25 or so years from the 1970s to the late 1990s that claims to find many lives saved through reductions in subsequent homicide rates after executions. This research, in turn, has produced a round of critiques, which concludes that these findings are not robust enough to model even small changes in specifications that yield dramatically different results. A principal reason for this sensitivity of the findings is that few state-years exist (about 1 percent of all state-years) in which six or more executions have occurred. To provide a different perspective, we focus on Texas, a state that has used the death penalty with sufficient frequency to make possible relatively stable estimates of the homicide response to executions. In addition, we narrow the observation intervals for recording executions and homicides from the annual calendar year to monthly intervals. Based on time-series analyses and independent-validation tests, our best-fitting model shows that, from January 1994 through December 2005, evidence exists of modest, short-term reductions in homicides in Texas in the first and fourth months that follow an execution—about 2.5 fewer homicides total. Another model suggests, however, that in addition to homicide reductions, some displacement of homicides may be possible from one month to another in the months after an execution, which reduces the total reduction in homicides after an execution to about .5 during a 12-month period. Implications for additional research and the need for future analysis and replication are discussed.

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