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Capital Punishment and Non-Capital Crimes: A Test of Deterrence, General Prevention, and System-Overload Arguments

NCJ Number
Albany Law Review Volume: 54 Issue: 3/4 Dated: (1990) Pages: 681-707
W C Bailey; R D Peterson
Date Published
27 pages
This article explains and tests the theory that capital punishment statutes help to prevent the commission of noncapital felonies.
The premise that the death penalty reduces noncapital crimes is based upon three arguments advanced by proponents of the death penalty: general prevention, deterrence, and the production of system overload. In sum, these arguments reason that the threat and application of capital punishment could reduce the number of noncapital offenses by providing moralizing and related educational functions, by deterring felonies that might result in felony murder, and by freeing criminal justice resources from the homicide problem (presumably reduced by capital punishment threats) and thereby increasing the certainty of punishment for other offenses. If these arguments are correct, there should be a significant inverse relationship between rates of serious felonies and both the level of use of the death penalty and the amount of publicity devoted to executions. To test this hypothesis, this study conducted a national monthly time-series analysis of the number of executions; the amount of execution publicity; and the rates of aggravated assault, forcible rape, robbery, burglary, larceny, and vehicle theft between 1976 and 1987. The analysis shows a significant inverse relationship between the amount and type of television coverage devoted to executions and the rates of assault, robbery, and burglary. Implications of the findings are discussed, and suggestions are offered for further research. 4 tables and 69 footnotes


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