“In terms of capital punishment and my views on capital punishment, the jury is very much still out about whether it’s a deterrent factor or not, but what I am certain of is a specific deterrent with the most heinous crimes — what we see happening on school grounds and when we see people slaughtering children, and we see certain people sitting on death row who have wantonly just destroyed families and lives, they deserve the death penalty and to take that away from a judge and a jury, in my opinion, is wrong.”
Jeff Bartos, the Republican candidate for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, said in a debate Saturday that there isn’t yet consensus on whether the death penalty serves as an effective criminal deterrent.
“In terms of capital punishment and my views on capital punishment, the jury is very much still out about whether it’s a deterrent factor or not,” Bartos said during a pre-recorded debate filmed Saturday afternoon aired that evening byWPXI-TV in Pittsburgh. “But what I am certain of is a specific deterrent with the most heinous crimes — what we see happening on school grounds and when we see people slaughtering children, and we see certain people sitting on death row who have wantonly just destroyed families and lives, they deserve the death penalty and to take that away from a judge and a jury, in my opinion, is wrong.”
The question he was answering mentioned gubernatorial running mate Scott Wagner’s proposed policy of a mandatory death sentence for school shooters.
Asked to clarify Bartos’ answer Wednesday, campaign spokesperson Andrew Romeo said via email, “Since [the proposed policy] has not been tried yet in Pennsylvania, there is no way to tell whether or not it will be a deterrent, but Scott and Jeff believe it will be.”
In 60 years of research, is there evidence to support their belief?
A lack of empirical evidence
For this fact-check, we’ll put aside the ethical, moral and religious arguments around the death penalty’s use, and look just at the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent.
Both advocates and abolitionists have troves of competing data. Some studies point to comparable or nearly identical murder rates between states with the death penalty and those without it. Others argue a statistical correlation between the death penalty and reductions in murder rates.
But the overarching consensus in the most authoritative circles — a task force and advisory committee to the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission among them — is that all or many of these studies were flawed.
“I don’t know empirically that anyone can demonstrate it’s a deterrent,” said John Rago, an associate professor at the Duquesne University School of Law. “The death penalty has always struck me as an expression of society’s condemnation of a particular act, as opposed to an attempt to deter others from doing it.”
Rago pointed to the June 2018 report on the death penalty for the Pa. Joint State Government Commission. In it, a task force and advisory committee reports to the commission that research on the subject of the death penalty as a deterrence factor is severely lacking.
“In a state like Pennsylvania with a relatively large number of death sentences but almost no executions, the deterrent effect of the death penalty is attenuated, regardless of whether a more vigorously applied death penalty would have a deterrent effect” the study states, citing decades of flawed research in supporting this conclusion.
‘Nobody thinks they’re going to get caught’
In Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions shortly after taking office in 2015.
The following year, the Pa. Department of Corrections reported a 0.6 percent decrease in murders. But there’s conflicting data from the Department of Health, where records show 48 more homicides in 2016 than in 2015.
Marshall Dayan, an assistant public defender in the capital habeas unit of the federal public defender’s office for the Western District of Pa., was one of 30 advisory committee members behind the June report to the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission. He said he’s represented people charged with or convicted of capital crimes for more than 30 years and that anecdotally he’s found “the death penalty isn’t a deterrent because nobody thinks they’re going to be caught.”
He relayed a common refrain from clients: “Of course we didn’t care. It made no difference to us whether it’s death or life without parole or boiling us alive in hot oil.”
Said Daniel Nagin, a researcher and professor of public policy and statistics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, in a 2014 piece by the Washington Post: “It’s the certainty of apprehension that’s been demonstrated consistently to be an effective deterrent, not the severity of the ensuing consequences.”
In a phone conversation Wednesday, Nagin, who was chair of a committee that created a 2012 report for the National Academy of Sciences on this subject, said their conclusion was that research on the death penalty was so flawed as to be “uninformative on the question of whether there was a deterrent effect of the death penalty.”
The body of research was deemed flawed, in large part, because it failed to take into account whether the death penalty was a greater deterrent than other options available to the criminal justice system. That hasn’t changed in the six years since, at least not to his knowledge, Nagin said.
Dayan stressed that the question of relative effectiveness is crucial. “The question is not whether the death penalty deters in a vacuum,” he said, “the question is whether there’s any additional deterrent effect of threatening to kill somebody versus threatening to incarcerate someone for a long period of time or forever.”
“It’s not like the options are either you get sentenced to death or we give you the key to the city,” Dayan said.
“Really smart social scientists have been looking at this for 60 years and have pretty consistently concluded that it can’t be proved one way or the other,” Dayan added. “Sixty years with no conclusion suggests to me there is a conclusion, that is we can’t either prove or disprove deterrence and so if you want to rest public policy on the deterrence rationale — the research just doesn’t support that.”
Republican Lt. Gov. candidate Jeff Bartos is correct that the jury is still out on whether the death penalty is an effective deterrent.
But he also says he’s certain it is “a specific deterrent with the most heinous crimes.” Most experts disagree, saying there is no convincing scientific evidence supporting this conclusion. Bartos’ statements also conflict with each other.
For these reasons, and given the emphatic testimony of experts and the dearth of evidence they point to, we rate his claim about the death penalty being “a specific deterrent with the most heinous crimes” Mostly False.