Friday, December 09, 2011

Assessing Death Penalty - Law and Economics Style

Imposing a death penalty or capital punishment for certain type of criminal activities would always be a controversial issue. Some people believe that the imposition of death penalty is important to create an effective deterrent effect toward criminal activities. Others believe that death penalty is against one of the basic human rights, i.e. the right to live. Before I provide my arguments below, I will have to inform you all that I am a supporter of death penalty, albeit with certain conditions.

First of all, in normative Law and Economics, welfare maximization and efficiency are the two key terms that must be prioritized in assessing the quality of a law, including the imposition of any criminal sanctions. Why? Because in Law and Economics terms, a law would be deemed useful for the society if it can maximize the overall welfare of the people without imposing too much costs on them.  The perfect law would be pareto efficient, where all people will be better off without having any losers in the society. While that might be nice, in practice it is almost impossible to satisfy the Pareto criterion, and therefore Law and Economics usually end up with Kaldor-Hicks efficiency, i.e. a law will be considered efficient if it can maximize the overall welfare of the society (so that in general, there is a surplus for the society) and open the possibility of compensating the losers, even though the compensations have not yet been materialized. 

I understand though that welfare maximization is not the sole value that can be adhered in a society. What about, say, fairness? However, as argued by Steven Shavell and Louis Kaplow, two prominent economists and law professors from Harvard Law School, in their book, Fairness vs Welfare, welfare should always be prioritized whenever there is any conflict between welfare and fairness principles, simply because fairness is an element of welfare maximization while welfare itself is not necessarily a part of fairness maximization. The duo provide some very interesting arguments in the book but I will discuss that in another occasion. For now, I only like to introduce the basic concept of welfare maximization in Law and Economics.

Having said that, the next question would be: can we justify the existence of death penalty in a legal system from Law and Economics perspective? The quick answer is: it depends. The three main factors that should be considered are: (i) the costs and benefits of imposing the death penalty compared to alternative sanctions, (ii) the administration costs for death penalty, and (iii) the net effect of death penalty to the society.

Costs of Imposing Death Penalty in Comparison with Alternative Sanctions
 
With respect of the costs of imposing death penalty, suffice to say that death penalty is cheaper than prison. Killing one person is definitely easier than maintaining a person's life in the prison for certain period of time. But it would be wrong if the comparison is made only to prison. The fact that the costs of death penalty are cheaper does not necessarily means that it is superior to other type of sanctions. In fact, from economics perspective, death penalty might be inferior compared to the sanctions in the form of fines because death penalty does not produce any direct additional wealth or at least create a transfer of wealth. The only way we can say that death penalty produces wealth (indirectly) is if there is a good evidence that death penalty effectively deters crimes and therefore reduces the overall costs of criminal activities to the society and save the people's money for costs of legal enforcement.

Administrative Costs for Imposing Death Penalty

Another important issue is the costs for administration of death penalty. Since death penalty is irrevocable, in the sense that you can't raise the dead once the sanction has been administered, the administrative costs for getting the right decision tends to be higher in order to avoid costs of wrong decisions (such as longer waiting period for the execution of the penalty, additional costs for producing evidence, etc). Why we need to avoid these wrong decisions and why people should pay for the costs? Other than fairness related argument, Law and Economics believe that wrong judgment reduces the probability of allocating the criminal sanctions to the intended target, i.e. the real criminals. For each wrong judgment, we impose unnecessary costs to the innocent person and let the criminals free from the sanctions which means that the costs for them to do their criminal activities are reduced, inducing them to do more criminal activities.

In other words, wrong judgment is a factor that may increase the probability of doing crimes simply because the criminals know that the probability of them getting caught and being sanctioned is reduced. So, letting too many wrong judgments will be inefficient for the society. But the same inefficiency could also happen when we spend too much money in trying to reduce the error costs of judgments. A good example would be cases where it is very difficult to proof that the defendant is guilty, such as in rape case. I have argued in my working paper here, that imposing death penalty for rape cases might be counterproductive because the process of evidence is difficult and the administrative costs for getting the right decision would be too huge. As a result, imposing alternative sanctions which are revocable in the future might be the best option for rape cases.

The Net Effect of Death Penalty

The most controversial aspect of death penalty is the claim that it can effectively deter crimes rate. Obviously, this is something that needs further empirical research, especially in Indonesia. I note from one of my professors that some empirical researches in the US found that high death rates in the prison can effectively deter the rate of crime. We can categorize this as an indirect death penalty sentence since you can be easily sentenced to a prison (and therefore less administrative costs for the entire process) but there is no guarantee that you will survive the prison. Apparently, having no life guaranty in the prison is scarier than having a direct death penalty where the process is longer and the possibility to avoid such sanction is higher.

As I said above, to the extent that death penalty can be an effective deterrent mechanism, such penalty might be an efficient solution for reducing criminal activities. How can we assess the efficiency of death penalty? In simple mathematical formula, death penalty would be deemed efficient when P > (C + AC + WC), where P is the amount saved by the society from reduced criminal activities, C is the costs of imposing death penalty, AC is the administrative costs of death penalty and WC is the costs for irrevocable wrong conviction. To be more consistent, we can also add the utility function of the criminals who receive such death penalty, since in a way, we impose costs to him by taking his life.

Based on the above super simplified model, I could tell that the basic problem with death penalty is that there is no calculation for the utility function of the victim, in fact the imposition of death penalty will never calculate the interest of the victims because they are simply out from the equation. Granted, the victim might receive some utilities from the retribution effect of death penalty, but I am not sure whether that will be enough. Again, as I said above, while death penalty might be more efficient than prisons, fines might actually be more superior than death penalty in welfare maximization and the use of death penalty should be really limited to certain type of criminal activities.

Conclusion
 
If I have more spare time, I would love to write more on the Law and Economics analysis of death penalty just like when I write about Economic Analysis of Rape Crimes. My support for death penalty is basically conditioned upon the satisfaction of the above model. If the overall costs of death penalty are bigger than the expected reduction in criminal activities, then supporting death penalty would be useless as it is the same with reducing the welfare of the overall society. Personally, I will give more support to any sanctions that can compensate the victims while still giving deterrent effect to criminal activities, such as a significant amount of fine and/or forced labor.

My another thought would be that death penalty should only be imposed to criminals whose activities are considered very dangerous to the societies and therefore letting them return to society without effective way of preventing them from doing the same thing would be too costly, such as serial murderers. But this can lead to another debate on what type of dangerous activities that should be sanctioned with death penalty. On that matter, I will reserve it for another time.

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