NYU (US) — Use of the death penalty does not affect subsequent murder rates, says a study of over 50 years of crime statistics in Trinidad and Tobago.
“Our analysis of homicides and serious crimes in Trinidad and Tobago seriously undermines the contention that capital punishment offers a solution to Trinidad and Tobago’s soaring homicide rate,” write the study’s co-authors, David Greenberg, professor of sociology at New York University and Biko Agozino, professor of sociology at Virginia Tech.
“Over a span of 50 years, during which these sanctions were being deployed in degrees that varied substantially, neither imprisonment nor death sentences nor executions had any significant relationship to homicides.”
A study on the impact of capital punishment in the Caribbean republic is of particular interest because of the high level of death-penalty sentencing there. The sociologists’ findings are published in the British Journal of Criminology.
“It has been hard to measure capital punishment as a deterrent to murder in the U.S. because it is administered infrequently,” explains Greenberg. “By contrast, in Trinidad and Tobago, the chances of actually being executed have historically been much higher.”
In the United States, the death penalty was reinstated by states more than 30 years ago—following a 1976 landmark Supreme Court ruling—while capital punishment has not existed in Canada or in western Europe for several decades.
By contrast, Trinidad and Tobago had high rates of death-penalty sentencing and executions prior to a 1993 court ruling, which barred the death penalty for inmates on death row longer than five years, thereby reducing the number of executions and death-penalty sentences. Though the courts continue to impose death sentences, none has been carried out in more than a decade.
The researchers note that from 1955 to 1980, homicide rates were relatively stable in Trinidad and Tobago, ranging from 4.44 per 100,000 (1955) to 4.34 (1980) during this period. However, during this same stretch, executions ranged from a high of 16 in 1969 to zero between 1980 and 1993.
By contrast, when executions rose to 11 in 1999, the murder rate rose in nearly every subsequent year until 2007, the last year calculated. In 2007, 391 homicides were recorded in Trinidad and Tobago—a country with a population of just 1,328,412—resulting in a rate of 29.4 per 100,000 population. This compares to a U.S. homicide rate in the same year of 5.6 per 100,000 population.
The researchers acknowledged the role geography could play into the findings.
“Generalizations from Trinidad and Tobago to other settings must obviously be made cautiously,” they write. “Every country has distinctive elements of culture, social structure, and social organization that may influence the way its population responds to criminal justice sanctions, including the death penalty.”
Murders in the republic have risen dramatically since 2000—when executions ceased, even though death-penalty sentences have continued—but this change says little about the impact of capital punishment as a deterrent to murder, Greenberg says.
“We can reject the argument that the cessation of executions brought about a big increase in murder in the last decade—in earlier years, big swings in the execution rate had no visible effect and the 11 executions in 1999 brought about no detectable drop in homicides.”
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