Thursday, December 22, 2005

Death Penalty/Tookie Williams

Judge Posner has an interesting discussion of the effects of capital punishment, and observations of the Williams case:

Early empirical analysis by Isaac Ehrlich found a substantial incremental deterrent effect of capital punishment, a finding that coincides with the common sense of the situation: it is exceedingly rare for a defendant who has a choice to prefer being executed to being imprisoned for life. [Ed: Posner also notes that Ehrlich's study, though met with heavy criticims in years since the study, has recently received renewed support by subsequent economics studies] . . . these authors found that one execution deters 18 murders. Although this ratio may seem implausible given that the probability of being executed for committing a murder is less than 1 percent [out of all murderers]. . . . Even a 1 percent probability of death is hardly trivial; most people would pay a substantial amount of money to eliminate such a probability.

[Turning to the Williams case] the major argument made for clemency was that he had reformed in prison and, more important, had become an influential critic of the type of gang violence in which he had engaged. . . . On the one hand, if murderers know that by "reforming" on death row they will have a good shot at clemency, the deterrent effect of the death penalty will be reduced. . . . [C]lemency is the currency in which such activities [William's writings agains violence] are compensated and therefore encouraged. Presumably grants of clemency on such a basis should be rare, since there probably are rapidly diminishing social returns to death-row advocacy, along with diminished deterrence as a result of fewer executions. For the more murderers under sentence of death there are who publicly denounce murder and other criminality, the less credibility the denunciations have.