David From, a former speech writer for George Bush, in The Bulletin revives an old argument that Australia needs the death penalty to reduce crime. The evidence advanced is that, over the past decade, the number of murders in the US has declined from 25,000 to under 15,000 and crime rates generally have plummetted to their lowest levels since 1974. Quote: ‘It would be rash to credit the death penalty alone for this triumph. But it would equally be wrong to deny capital punishment its share of the credit’.
I think that Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in Freakonomics (in Chapter 4) show convincingly that this last claim is wrong. The main factor explaining the reduction in the crime rate in the 1990s was the Roe v. Wade ruling in the US Supreme Court that extended legalised abortion to the entire US. The interstate and other evidence provided in Freakonomics strongly suggests that it was unwanted children who tended to become criminals and murderers. Abortion law reform reduced numbers of such children. It was not increased policing or improved economic conditions that reduced crime rates. Their claim ‘It is extremely unlikely that the death penalty, as currently practiced in the United States, exerts any real influence on crime rates.’
Andrew Leigh confirms similar findings for Australia here. This evidence is less clearcut than that for the US since there was no specific date from which access to abortion became legal but liberalisation did tend to occur at the end of the 1960s with the murder rate peaking 20 years later as with US experience. In the 1990s when the law could be expected to impact on numbers of unwanted children the homicide rate fell.
I oppose capital punishment regardless of claims concerning its effectiveness. Nor am I proud of Australia’s reliance on abortion which is high absolutely (100,000 per year) but not high compared to other countries. But it is foolish to invoke a phoney interpretation of US experience to justify a change in our laws. Not that a change is likely. Less than 50% of the Australian population support reintroduction of the death penalty and both major political parties oppose it.
Moreover, even though I dislike the high abortion numbers (and the associated notion of getting rid of ‘unwanted kids’), liberal laws are in place and should provide ongoing benefits, at least in terms of reducing crime and murder rates.