Claims that the death penalty deters murder are fragile

In her Dec. 14 Opinion piece, "Why not all executions deter murder," Joanna Shepherd suggests that executions deter homicides in only one in five states that impose death sentences. These are the states that execute the most people. Later she claims that low execution rates have the perverse effect of actually increasing homicides.

Unfortunately, Ms. Shepherd ignores the well-accepted scientific standard that strongly cautions against broad acceptance of research until its claims can be replicated under a variety of tests and conditions. We have been undertaking just such an effort, using data Shepherd generously shared. Our preliminary results suggest that her claims of deterrence are fragile and inconsistent.

The results vary when we use alternate measures of homicide rates, or when we incorporate confounding factors, such as drug epidemics, that might better explain variations in homicide rates. Perhaps most important, Shepherd fails to compare the death penalty to alternative punishments that also cut into crime. Hence, her claims cannot address the crucial policy question of whether the death penalty provides a stronger deterrent effect than a sentence of life without parole.

Regrettably, many of America's strongest death penalty advocates have uncritically seized on Shepherd's unstable results to argue for expansion of capital punishment and against moratoriums such as that legislated recently in New Jersey. Such uncritical acceptance can easily lead to expensive and dangerous public policies. Until this research survives the rigors of replication and thorough testing of alternative hypotheses, it provides absolutely no foundation for life and death decisions.
Jeffrey Fagan
New York
Professor of Law and Public Health
Columbia University
Steven Durlauf
Madison, Wis.
Professor of Economics
University of Wisconsin-Madison

The authors are members of the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Research Council.

Alaska senator helps protect fisheries

Regarding the Dec. 28 article, "Congress aims to curb overfishing": It is unfortunate that environmentalists have to "bite their lips" when they acknowledge the leadership of Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska in protecting ocean resources. Those of us in the Alaska fishing industry don't hesitate to praise Sen. Stevens's conservation record. His vision puts conservation first and yet keeps decisions in the hands of the people who depend on healthy fish stocks for their livelihood. It's a system that works.

Since passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Alaskan fisheries have thrived, and they've done so because fishery managers follow scientific recommendations to limit catches to sustainable levels.

The result is that commercial fishing in Alaska is a $1.2 billion industry that supports 70,000 jobs and accounts for over half the nation's seafood landings - and not one groundfish stock is currently considered overfished.

Stevens's current efforts to strengthen the Act would apply the lessons learned in Alaska to the rest of the nation. And, by strengthening the regional fishery council system, he would keep the decisionmaking authority where it belongs - in the various regions of the country and not in Washington, D.C.
David Benton
Juneau, Alaska
Executive director
Marine Conservation Alliance

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