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Death Penalty Research Fundamentally Flawed, Report Says

April 19, 2012

death penalty researchThe available research on the death penalty cannot be used by policymakers to determine if capital punishment deters, increases, or has no effect on the nation's homicide rate, according to a new report from the National Research Council. A panel of experts, chaired by Visiting Scholar Daniel Nagin, evaluated dozens of studies conducted since 1976, when a four-year moratorium on capital punishment was lifted. The panel found that the research could not determine if the death penalty is less or more effective than alternative punishments, such as a life sentence without parole.

Here's an excerpt from the NRC's press release:

The lack of evidence about the deterrent effect of capital punishment -- whether it is positive, negative, or zero -- should not be construed as favoring one argument over another, the report stresses. "Fundamental flaws in the research we reviewed make it of no use in answering the question of whether the death penalty affects homicide rates," said Daniel S. Nagin, Teresa and H. John Heinz III University Professor of Public Policy and Statistics at Carnegie Mellon University Pittsburgh, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "We recognize that this conclusion may be controversial to some, but no one is well-served by unsupportable claims about the effect of the death penalty, regardless of whether the claim is that the death penalty deters homicides, has no effect on homicide rates or actually increases homicides."

The report will likely spark debate among academic circles on future directions for death penalty research. Several media outlets covered the release of the report, including NPR, USA Today and the L.A. Times. Read the full report, or find out more about Nagin's work at RSF.