DETERRENCE EFFECTS OF THE DEATH PENALTY

EVIDENCE FROM BRITISH ARMY DESERTERS IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR

The death penalty failed to reduce desertions from the British military during the First World War – and it even spurred on other crimes. These are among the findings from the study of a situation where the decision to use the death penalty varied almost randomly across military units, making is possible to compare the outcomes of units that executed their soldiers with those that did not.

The research by Daniel Chen, presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2013 annual conference, looks at the ‘pitiless lottery’ of the death penalty for desertion in the British military during the First World War. During that period, over 3,000 soldiers were sentenced to death but only around 12% of these soldiers were actually executed while the others received commuted sentences.

The study looks at the effect on absences, measured by ‘wanted’ lists prepared by British military police, which have been preserved in war diaries. There is limited evidence that executing deserters deterred absences, while executing non-deserters and Irish soldiers, regardless of the crime, spurred absences in general and Irish absences in particular.

Chen argues that these findings suggest that legitimacy may play an important role in why people obey the law.

After decades of empirical research, there is little convincing evidence that the death penalty deters any form of misbehaviour. Asked whether it is possible to measure the effectiveness of the death penalty, University of Michigan Professor Justin Wolfers said, ‘If I was allowed 1,000 executions and 1,000 exonerations, and I was allowed to do it in a random, focused way ... I could probably give you an answer.’

The author of this new study argues that the close to random decision to execute British soldiers during the First World War provides probably the closest approximation to such an impossible experiment. He adds:

‘My study focuses on the basic and timeless question of whether the threat of death by execution influences individual decision-making, albeit in a very particular setting.’

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After decades of empirical research, there is little convincing evidence that the death penalty deters any form of misbehaviour. What makes this absence of evidence so intriguing to some observers is that economic theory makes an unambiguous prediction: raising the cost of some activity will cause a decrease in its incidence, be it illegal parking, homicide or military desertion.

The great econometric challenge of death penalty research is that the death penalty is applied in way that makes definitive conclusions hard. In the US, states that allow the death penalty differ from states that do not in important ways that probably have independent effects on the level of crime.

Furthermore, assessing the effects of the death penalty requires the examination of crime rates in the future. But since crime has multiple causes, disentangling the effect of the death penalty from other confounding socio-economic or cultural factors is challenging.

Despite these empirical difficulties, whether the death penalty deters crime seems in principle to be an answerable question. In an interview with the New York Times on the state of empirical death penalty research, Professor Justin Wolfers, a sceptic of existing empirical death penalty research, said, ‘If I was allowed 1,000 executions and 1,000 exonerations, and I was allowed to do it in a random, focused way... I could probably give you an answer.’

This scenario is (thankfully) unlikely to come to pass, but the British Army experience during the First World War may be an approximation: a large number of soldiers had their death sentences executed or commuted for seemingly arbitrary reasons despite having committed essentially identical crimes.

This study uses the quasi-random application of the death penalty during the First World War to test whether the death penalty deterred desertion. Although the research answers a question different from that addressed in the usual death penalty research, it has the advantage of a relatively clear source variation that allows identification of any effects. Furthermore, it focuses on the more basic and timeless question of whether the threat of death by execution influences individual decision-making, albeit in a very particular setting.

During the First World War, the British military condemned over 3,000 soldiers to death, but executed only approximately 12% of these soldiers; the others received commuted sentences. Many historians believe that the military command confirmed or commuted sentences for reasons unrelated to the circumstances of a particular case and that the application of the death penalty was essentially a random, ‘pitiless lottery’.

Using a dataset on all capital cases during the First World War, the research statistically investigates this claim and finds that the data are consistent with an essentially random process.

Using this result, the study exploits variation in commutations and executions within military units to identify the deterrent effect of executions, with deterrence measured by the elapsed time within a unit between the resolution of a death sentence (that is, a commutation or execution) and subsequent absences within that unit. Absences are measured via ‘wanted’ lists prepared by British military police units searching for deserters and preserved in war diaries.

The study finds limited evidence that executing deserters deterred absences, while executing non-deserters and Irish soldiers, regardless of the crime, spurred absences in general and Irish absences in particular. These findings suggest that legitimacy may play an important role in why people obey the law.

ENDS


Contact:

RES media consultant Romesh Vaitilingam:
+44 (0) 7768 661095
romesh@vaitilingam.com
@econromesh

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